A Killer Hangover: China’s Problem with Fake Alcohol

A Killer Hangover: China’s Problem with Fake Alcohol
Aug 28, 2013 By Trey Archer , eChinacities.com

My friends and I often joke that we never used to get hangovers in college; but the older we get, the worse the hangover becomes. While I’m sure physiology and the process of aging have a hand in this, after having a few drinks (let me stress, just a few) at a bar in Chengdu one night, I woke up with a splitting headache and couldn’t get out of bed the entire day. I called my friends later when I came back to life and asked what happened, but they responded that they too were just as bad. Of course, I teased and said, “We must be getting old.”

However, something wasn’t right because we weren’t that old and we didn’t drink that much. Later, after much contemplation, we concluded that we had consumed fake alcohol—a problem that seems to be affecting all of China these days. Along with all the other scams and health hazards in the Middle Kingdom, distributing fake alcohol to thirsty patrons (like myself) is not only annoying; it’s dangerous and at times, deadly. If you haven’t been informed yet, there is some pretty disturbing news concerning the sale and consumption of fake alcohol in China.

fake alcohol in China
Photo: flickr.com

What exactly is “fake” alcohol?

What happened to the “good ole days” when college bars innocently watered down our drinks? (Actually, this is probably why hangovers weren’t so bad in our younger years). Apparently, water just isn’t cutting it anymore, and things are getting ugly. According to Park Street Imports, a leading alcoholic beverage importer, distributer and solutions provider, “It’s generally made from one of three bases: ethylene glycol, which is essentially antifreeze, attacks the kidneys and heart and is potentially fatal; methanol, which attacks the retinal nerve and can result in blindness; and isopropyl alcohol, more commonly known as rubbing alcohol.”

Another alcohol scam Time Out Shanghai spoke of was “Frankenstein mixtures made by illegal labs in Guangzhou, Fujian and Shanghai, where chemical dyes and tarnished wine are sold for cheap to ignorant secondary and tertiary markets.” Like ethylene glycol, methanol and isopropyl alcohol, these so-called “Frankensteing mixtures” can contain just about anything and are also considered extremely harmful and dangerous. And just how dangerous are they? Though stats concerning fake alcohol fatalities are highly censored in China, for a cross reference, roughly 42,000 people die per year in Russia from fake alcohol consumption.

The Scam

So why do they do it? A bottle of fake liquor costs much less than what the real deal does, so bars can make a lot more profit without marking up their prices. And how do they do it? In Beijing last December, police seized 37,000 bottles of fake booze destined for, you guessed it Beijingers, Sanlitun Bar Street. According to the article, gang members had collected the empty bottles of genuine brand names, filled them with the fake booze, and resold them to bars and night clubs. Some locals believe management is to blame; how else could they sell 10 RMB drinks and still make a profit???

Time Out Shanghai spoke of an incident in 2011 in Songjiang where 25 were sentenced to 10 years in prison after they extorted a minimum 210,000 RMB from wealthy businessmen they invited to a luxury wine tasting banquette. The expensive wine, in reality, was low grade and worthless. Continuing, China Daily covered the seizure of 40 illegal fake alcohol workshops in Beijing early this year where more than 6,000 bottles worth more than 5.37 million RMB ($861,000 USD) were appropriated. Unfortunately, these cases are just the tip of the iceberg; just think how much is going on under the radar.

How to spot the fakes?

It’s difficult. But luckily our pals at Park Street Imports have provided some useful advice: First, for wholesale buyers, check the serial number and always question unfamiliar name brands. Second, for bar patrons, stay away from unknown brands and stick to what you know. Third, for both wholesale buyers and patrons, trust your taste buds. Sample the drink and if it just doesn’t taste right, don’t buy it.

Of course this is easier said than done—especially since counterfeit operations are using authentic name brand bottles, and mixed drinks are made in the first place to hide the taste of alcohol—but if you feel bad, experience an excruciating hangover (like myself),  or taste something fishy, by all means leave and/or stop going to that bar. In all honesty, though the chances are extremely low, it could save your life.

What to do?

If you are convinced that you’ve been sold fake alcohol, you can call the police. However, they may not do much and you may not want to get on the bad side of any Triads by busting their fake booze ring. Plus, how embarrassed would you feel if the place actually sold you real alcohol and you just made a drunken mistake?

I’d personally recommend that you let the world know. Word travels fast, so get the message out on a blog or through word of mouth. If people have similar experiences, the masses will boycott that establishment. If not, then at least you and your friends can avoid it. Another good tip is to drink name brand beer out of the bottle since not many counterfeit schemes see a lot of profit in producing fake beer. Apart from reduplicating the unique taste, I guess they figured Chinese beer is so cheap and weak anyway that they’d actually lose money by trying to fake it...

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Keywords: fake alcohol in China


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With leave penalties , these situations are getting rare and unheard off nowadays.

Oct 13, 2020 09:59 Report Abuse



Id also like to let you know cans of budwisers here in hangzhou can be fake. a friend and i bought 5 cans each. out of the 5 cans I had, 2 tasted good, 3 bad. its not just that they had sat around for too long, but the cans were slightly smaller and the writing imprinted in the top of the can wasnt as deep as the good bud's. We bought these from a supermarket. we now just drink 7rmb chinese bottles, its consistently weak and crap but at least its not rubbing alcohol in colored water.

Aug 31, 2013 18:00 Report Abuse



I was sick for a week after two drinks at Mural in Shanghai. I was drunk after the first! Prior to this I never get hangovers. It was the worst experience of my life and given how my body reacted it is understandable how consumption of fake alcohol can lead to death.

Aug 31, 2013 16:31 Report Abuse



I had the worst hangover once, living in Beihai, after having two gin and tonics at the club. I was in bed sick for a day and a half with a splitting headache and I couldn't keep anything down. My school "invited themselves in" to my apartment to see if I would be going to work that day...they were treated to a beautiful sight.

Aug 30, 2013 09:26 Report Abuse



Besides the obvious bars in and around Sanlitun, why don't we post names of some places we know served/sold fake alcohol? I stopped drinking Yanjing years ago and due to budgetary constraints turned to Chinese domestic wine. I couldn't pass up the 19 RMB bottle of Changyu, or two for 35 rmb. Taste was awful and inconsistent (I was not expecting it to be great or anything) but even after two bottles and no affect. Now I have a better job and have forsaken the Chinese wine swill. However, I have purchased some questionable bottles from 7-11 of "foreign" wine with some bad results. I have found Cheers Wine shops to be reasonable and safe (so far). One must assume any hard liquor is fake unless you brought it from abroad or know a friend who did. Even some foreign owned (with Chinese partners) cannot resist the temptation. Hell even fake Yanjing. Drink safe.

Aug 29, 2013 18:12 Report Abuse



Mama always said "You get what you pay for".

Aug 29, 2013 10:40 Report Abuse



Steinlarger seems to taste different these days so i stopped drinking that, also tend to get hung over from only a couple of bottles of it. The inside of the cap has changed from the white rubber to a harder clear rubber. Also seems less bubbly when opened.

Aug 28, 2013 21:43 Report Abuse



Nothing new here for anyone who's stayed in China for more than a couple of weeks, though it's always good to get the word out. As you said, the more people read and worry about it, the more likely it is someone (namely the government/bar proprietors) might do something about it. Unfortunately, even when you know with some certainty that a place sells fake drinks, in a lot of cases it's hard to do something about it, particularly when you're on a budget. I like to think that there are higher odds of getting served genuine alcohol in pricier places, as I figure if a place charges 50+ kuai for a beer, they can afford to get you the real deal. Obviously, this logic is flawed, as rather than serving you premium drinks at a premium price (which I'm sure is the case in some places), a lot of venues might still resort to fake or discounted liquor for the sake of making just that much more profit (as I've heard of several high end, well-known clubs serving fake champagne, even when they're already selling it at several thousand kuai a bottle). Over the years of having lived in China, I've gotten the idea that people don't mind causing a few deaths or cases of deteriorated health for others as long as they make profit themselves. As I said, on a budget, it's very hard to get around drinking fake alcohol. This is mainly due to the difference in price (what student wouldn't prefer a 10 kuai beer over a 50 kuai one?), but also because I feel that a lot of people underestimate the health issues. It's like smoking: Numerous people die to lung cancer and what not due to smoking, yet others continue doing so, thinking that it either won't happen to them, or that they'll be able to quit before their health gets to a point where they need to start worrying about it. The same goes for these drinks, as foreigners in particular tend to stay here from anything between half a year and perhaps a handful of years tops, and they probably figure it won't affect them as long as they quit drinking the stuff at some point. I personally find it impossible to get around fake drinks, as I usually can't tell whether my hangover was caused by fake alcohol or something else (as there's numerous factors involved, besides you just getting old; your build, whether you had dinner before drinking, how frequently you drink, etc.) and am willing to take the risk when I have to choose between having fun with my equally broke friends, or sitting at home doing nothing. My advice to anyone who had a bad experience in a bar, and who wants to figure out whether they had a rough night or drank fake stuff, would be to discuss it with your friends and figure things out from there. In addition to this, if you're serious about your health and willing to spend some extra kuai in order to avoid fake drinks, you should avoid open bars or places that sell same brand drinks as other bars do at a much lower price, as this is an obvious indicator of something being fishy. Also, if you're not in a position to splurge, you could consider trying some Korean drinks such as soju. Even though soju does give you a hell of a hangover, at least it's one that's intended, as even the genuine stuff fucks you up.

Aug 28, 2013 15:31 Report Abuse



Wow, soju, that is a devilish alternative. No thanks. I haven't had any problems since buying only a specific drink (example Jack on the rocks) from a reputable bar. Find a reputable place and order consistent drinks, so you know they're trustworthy. Don't buy 5 rmb tequila shots or the special mixed drinks, that's a recipe for fake alcohol.

Aug 29, 2013 13:46 Report Abuse



Ummmm, there's not much you can do if you are on a budget? How about NOT BUY. That's always a viable, safe alternative kid. Save your money and enjoy it when you can be sure you're safe.

Sep 04, 2013 04:27 Report Abuse



most alcohol in bars is fake, common knowledge really, have to go to a trusted foreign bar to get real stuff. Buying cheap stuff or brand not common are a good way are safer than common stuff because no profit in making it fake

Aug 28, 2013 12:23 Report Abuse



funny? TRIADS got busted in Shenzhen not too far from where I live

Aug 30, 2013 18:21 Report Abuse