Methanol and fake alcohol in Bali

Hi all, I have decided today to write about a topic that is big with travellers in Bali but still leaves many confused. – Alcohol

Let’s face it, the Australian media gives Bali a beating over “methanol” cases and there is even a fb page set up that is dedicated to persuading tourists to never drink spirits in Bali. The person that started this page lost someone dear to them and this of course was a great tragedy.

But is the methanol “epidemic” in Bali true?
There have been recorded cases of methanol poisoning in Indonesia but these cases most often happen in remote villages, particularly in Java where it is almost impossible for young people to buy genuine alcohol.
In Bali there have been numerous cases however in the past 5 years there have been very few confirmed cases of methanol poisoning.
Almost all of the cases of tourist methanol poisoning has occurred in cheap, back alley bars in Kuta and Gili Trawangan and these confirmed cases on tourists number less than a dozen in a period spanning a decade.
You are more likely to be struck and killed by lightning than die from methanol poisoning while on holiday in Bali.
By far the most dangerous activity (statistically) in Bali for tourists is riding scooters with no helmet.

Many “cases” of methanol poisoning in Bali are in fact purely anecdotal and often young people with alcohol poisoning (due to excessive consumption on a big night out), food poisoning, virus or a combination of all these simply attribute their terrible hangover or illness to “Methanol poisoning” because that’s the hysteria they have read about or watched on TV.
Confirmation bias similar to saying that “Chinese restaurants are dangerous because of the MSG”

So what is methanol?
Methanol is not added to drinks during production but is in fact a by product of the distillation process. When a fermented liquid is heated the vapour is cooled down and the distillate is collected. As the temperature rises the first part of the the distillate is methanol until the temperature reaches 79 degrees C.
In drink factories and distilleries this is always discarded.
As the temp goes over 79 degrees, the distillate that comes out is ethanol.
Ethanol is the safe stuff to drink (in moderate amounts) and is what makes up the alcohol content of fine whisky, vodka etc.
Methanol ends up in drinks made by manufacturers with poor knowledge of the distillation process.

So what about fake alcohol?
This is still a very big problem in Bali and throughout Asia.
In Indonesia this problem exists because of the unreasonably high tax on imported spirits and wine.
The most common fake products in Bali are Jack Daniels, Absolut vodka, Johnnie Walker, Jim beam, Jose Cuervo and Gordons Gin.
This fake alcohol market is largely controlled by local mafia and these fake items are usually sold at around 250,000 -300,000 rupiah ($25-$35) a bottle.
Many small locally owned bars that use these fake products may not even know that their drinks are not authentic and many local people buy these products to drink with their friends thinking they are real as they have probably never tasted a genuine product to compare it with.
Local mafia connected employees of big hotels, bars and clubs collect empty original bottles and refill them with cheaper commercial spirits that are made by legitimate companies in Indonesia.

In Bali there are around 10 large and legitimate suppliers of genuine imported alcohol that have licenses on specific brands. These are imported via Jakarta and are exactly the same what you want buy at home in your bottle shop.

So are the fake products unsafe?
They are usually safe to drink as the expensive bottles are topped up with legitimate locally made (and lower taxed) spirits, however they may give you a nastier hangover just like cheap alcohol would do to you at home.
They don’t taste very nice as they often have flavouring added instead of ageing properly.
And of course when you pay for a brand you want to know that is what you are getting.

So how can we avoid fake products in Bali?

1. Drink at reputable establishments (check trip advisor and google reviews)
Avoid places with “all you can drink” or cocktails for under 50,000rp.

2. Buy bottles only from supermarkets (which can be expensive) and reputable delivery services such as Wow booze Bali – Alcohol Delivery 24/7 they are well established and used a lot by the expat community.

3. Always destroy empty spirit bottles after finishing them so they cannot ever be refilled.

4. Check for safety features if buying bottles from unknown sources. Many original products have security features and pouring valves in the neck of the bottle.
For example, a genuine bottle of Absolut vodka has a laser production code etched onto the base of the bottle. The same matching code should be printed on the plastic shrink wrap around the lid. The fake Absolut bottles have no code on the plastic at the lid.

5. Check your bottle is in good condition. If it looks like it was used before in a bar then maybe it was.

Finally the most important thing to remember is regardless of what alcohol you drink in Bali, always drink in moderation, enjoy your time on this beautiful island and never ride a scooter drunk without a helmet.

Stay safe everyone!