Modern-Day Bootlegging: Illegal Alcohol Trade Around the World

Around the World, Featured — By Lauren Quinn on April 21, 2010 at 12:18 pm

Caiprinihas in Brazil, Springbok in South Africa, Kir Royale in France—there’s nothing like a cocktail to bring you into the heart of a culture, and the heat of a good party. But in many destinations, coffee is the strongest drink you’ll find.

For religious and cultural reasons, some governments ban or tightly regulate alcohol consumption. While most residents and travelers oblige, a murky underworld of bootlegging thrives in the following seven places. From mild to extreme, an illegal alcohol trade is prevalent, and the repercussions are real: violence, punishment, sickness, even death.

Image: Murky1/Flickr

If you find yourself in need of a stiff one in any of these destinations, here’s what you should know before you attempt to indulge:

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

Image: Jensimon7/Flickr

As in many Muslim countries, the purchase of alcohol by non-Muslims is officially banned in the United Arab Emirates. In the emirate of Sharjah, alcohol is banned entirely; however, demand from its sizable expat community has created the country’s biggest and most lucrative illegal alcohol market.

Alcohol is produced and smuggled throughout the region through an intricate web of foreigners, locals and gangs. A deadly 2009 fall-out between rival bootleg gangs shed light on the illegal alcohol trade in the region. Seventeen laborers, mostly foreign, received death penalty convictions in conjunction with the incident, and currently await an Appeals Court ruling.

Aside from duty-free airport zones, only foreigners with residency permits may purchase alcohol in the United Arab Emirates.

Peshawar, Pakistan

Image: Mirjee/Travelling/Flickr

Alcohol, while technically banned in Pakistan for religious reasons, is widely available in urban areas. But not so in rural Peshawar, a conservative area on the frontier of Taliban territory. Over the last two years, the Taliban has cracked down on drinking. And even under the threat of violence and death, a profitable bootleg industry has emerged.

Demand largely comes from wealthier segments of the population, such as government officials and feudal landlords. Suppliers operate in secrecy, often not telling their own families, and the dangers of getting caught are high—violators are subject to public whippings and can even be hung. The New York Times recently featured a video depicting the bootleg phenomenon in Peshawar.


Image: James Temple/Flickr

Sweden maintains tight controls on alcohol distribution, a legacy of its 20th century temperance movement. While the Bratt system, in which the government controlled and rationed alcohol, is long gone, high taxes and limited distribution continue to be the norm throughout the country.

As Sweden entered the EU, the prevalence of smuggled and illegally traded alcohol rose, with an alarming teenage binge-drinking trend. The government has begun to rigorously crackdown on teenage drinking in an effort to curb the demand side of the country’s bootleg industry.

Bethel, Alaska

Image: The National Guard/Flickr

Prohibition in the United States may have ended some 70 years ago, but restrictions on the sale of alcohol vary state to state, with so-called Blue Laws.

In rural Alaska, laws go beyond not selling on a Sunday. With alcohol as a relatively new introduction to the majority Native American population, binge drinking can conspire with extreme conditions to create real problems.

Bethel is a “damp” town—personal possession of alcohol is not illegal, as in “dry” towns, but its sale and distribution is banned. There are no bars or liquor stores—alcohol must be flown in from capital Anchorage.

The ban, while supported by the majority of the residents, has paved the way for a roaring bootleg trade. Whiskey is the bootleg liquor of choice in Bethel, with a bottle fetching up to $300. But if you’re traveling to rural Alaska, don’t get any ideas—authorities pursue bootleggers and smugglers with the voracity of drug dealers.


Image: xJasonRogersx/Flickr

Russia has a strong alcohol tradition. While the government’s recent efforts to curb alcoholism through regulation, reform and high taxes have been slow to get off the ground, they have opened the door to bootlegging.

Unregulated counterfeit vodka, known as ITAR-TASS, caused illnesses such as toxic hepatitis throughout Russia in 2006 and 2007. Many blame the new regulations on causing the epidemic. One of the worst cases involved a cheap medical disinfectant added to alcohol, which caused what become known as “the yellow death,” sickening some 1,000 and killing 120.

Be sure to check vodkas purchased for excise stamp and barcode, which all legal alcohols are required to display.

Gujarat, India

Image: Emmanuel Dyan/Flickr

India’s only dry state is also the state with its most prevalent bootlegging industry. The state has banned alcohol since 1961, in homage to its native son Gandhi. But the ban has yielded a lucrative illegal trade, with fatal results.

In 2009, public outrage ensued after 112 people died from drinking poisoned bootleg alcohol. The victims were largely from slum areas, and protestors accused the police of abetting bootleggers for brides. Hospitals swelled with the sickened, while police responded by cracking down on some 800 known bootleggers. Twenty years earlier, an even bigger bootleg tragedy killed 132.

Foreigners are allowed to drink in Guyarat, with special permits. Learn how to get one here.

San Francisco, California

Image: igb/Flickr

It may be hard to imagine high-end American bars getting caught up in a bootlegging fiasco, but that’s exactly what happened recently in San Francisco.

Northern California’s culinary obsession with fresh, natural ingredients extends behind the bar, to artisan cocktails made with house-infused alcohols, and homemade Vermouths and bitters. The result: some of the best cocktails around. And the attention of the Department of Alcohol Beverage Control.

In California, it is illegal to “rectify” alcohol—alter it by infusing fruit, vegetables or spices—without a license. This includes everything from sangria to liquors like limoncello. High-end bars like Bourbon and Branch received warnings (no citations were issued). The warnings caused a panic in the restaurant and bar scene, with many cutting out their house-infused liquors as a precaution. The ABC’s main concern is the safety of the unregulated infused spirits; the agency has agreed to issue no citations until a compromise is worked out.

While the spirits in question are generally high quality and the threat of punishment low, the issue has raised heated questions about what many claim are outdated alcohol laws in the state. The only real risk to consumers is cost: where you can still find them, these labor-intensive cocktails run upwards of $14.

[Right Image: Paul Keller/Flickr]

Tags: alcohol, bootlegging, booze, illegal alcohol trade


  • Robin Villa says:

    It’s amazing what people will do for booze – arguably the most-coveted, least-essential, most controversial product one can procure.

  • xencat says:

    It is asserted that Ben Franklin claimed alcohol was proof that god wanted people to be happy. Oddly it seems the governments seldom seem to abide by god’s decree as espoused by the “great prophet” Ben Franklin.


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