Buying whisky or spirits from some retail outlets now requires extra caution as counterfeit products have flooded the market.
Government has already raised concern over the sale of illicit brews in formal retail outlets, which is putting the health of consumers at risk.
Supplying illicit alcohol to formal outlets such as bottle stores, night clubs and supermarkets is in contravention of food standards regulations and the Consumer Protection Act.
The law is designed to protect consumers from hazardous products, including drugs and alcoholic beverages that are illegally manufactured.
Some of the fake alcoholic drinks on sale in Harare
Some of the beverages are smuggled into the country.
Investigations conducted by The Sunday Mail Society have revealed that the production and supply of illicit brews are a seemingly lucrative “business” that involves a number of players.
It is an intricate web that begins with ethanol and methanol suppliers and extends to those who “manufacture” and package illicit brews before they find their way to various outlets.
The ethanol or methanol is mixed with some colouring and then diluted with water to reduce the alcohol content.
The mixture, whose contents are often not calibrated, is then packaged as legitimate spirits, with imitation labels being stuck on the bottle.
Brands such as Two Keys, Cane Star and Bols Brandy are the most imitated products.
Counterfeit products of Jameson Irish whisky and 8PM are also being sold to unsuspecting consumers.
But some of the labels are often misspelt, with the popular Two Keys often adulterated and reading Two Kiys.
It is, however, very difficult to differentiate genuine whisky bottles from the fake ones when counterfeit stickers are printed using original samples.
“The ministry urges all supermarkets and grocery shops to desist from stocking and trading in illicit alcoholic beverages, as well as those smuggled into the country.
“Government shall be engaging responsible authorities, including the Standards Association of Zimbabwe, to investigate the contents of these illicit alcoholic beverages in order to fully inform the consumers,” said Industry and Commerce Minister Dr Sithembiso Nyoni.
Ethanol and methanol — the primary ingredients used in the production of fake alcoholic beverages — are readily available in Mbare.
A 20-litre container of ethanol is being sold for as low as US$25.
Lameck — one of the many people who openly sell ethanol in Majubheki, Mbare — confirmed the availability of the product.
“My brother, you can come any time . . . I have been selling this product for a living for some time,” he said.
He claimed he gets the ethanol from his “colleagues” in the petroleum industry.
While some use new packaging for the illicit brews, others try to cut costs by recycling old bottles that are collected from dumpsites or popular drinking spots.
Designers and printers of fake beer and whisky labels, including Petros Moyo (name changed), are also making a killing.
Moyo said the number of people seeking his services has increased in recent years.
“Business is brisk these days. Most people whom I offer my services are now supplying big retail outlets, hence they need the labelling to look as original as possible,” said Moyo after this undercover writer enquired if he could supply quality labels.
He showed us a huge consignment of stickers labelled Two Keys — including others marked Two Kiys — that was neatly tucked in a corner, awaiting collection.
Both labels are priced differently, with those that seem authentic costing a bit more.
For instance, he charges US$10 for 100 Two Keys labels. At the same time, he charges US$5 for 100 Two Kiys labels.
The fake labels were printed with what appeared to be a genuine logo, batch number, best-before date and other marketing information.
“We have original labels, so we copy and create the actual thing,” his colleague added.
Tuckshop, supermarket, bottle store and nightclub owners are immensely benefitting from the illegal trade.
While producers of the beverages have found it impossible to penetrate big supermarkets, which have stringent procurement regimes, they have found ready takers in mid-sized retail shops, some of which are run on franchises.
“The prices for the beer (whisky) are relatively lower when compared to genuine products, thus customers are scrambling for them. Also, the suppliers of the beverages have flexible payment terms,” said Muchaneta Zvaitwa, who runs a bottle store in downtown Harare.
Health experts revealed that the amount of alcohol packaged in backyard products is often beyond acceptable standards, which makes the products hazardous.
While a normal whisky may have around 40 percent alcohol content, that of undiluted ethanol can be as high as 95 percent.
The authorities argue this makes backyard distilled alcohol more potent and addictive, which also explains why at times imbibers “black out” after taking what could be their usual quantities.
Dr Lloyd Washaya, a medical doctor, said taking illicit brews causes a number of health-related problems, both physical and psychological.
“Besides damaging the liver, illicit brews also cause mental disorders and reduce life expectancy,” Dr Washaya said.
But despite the medically proven health risks that are associated with such brews, there are some people who simply do not care and continue consuming them.
“We are all drinking fake beer. It is impossible to separate a fake brew from a genuine one. We are getting these drinks from supermarkets and bars . . . ,” said John Maulani of Mabvuku.
Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers president Mr Denford Mutashu urged Government to find effective ways of dealing with people who manufacture and distribute illicit brews.
“A research that we did revealed that there are more than 23 companies that are producing illicit brews. The companies are not registered and their products are not certified and standardised. Measures must be put in place to make sure the illicit brews are not put on supermarket shelves,” said Mr Mutashu.
Standards Association of Zimbabwe (SAZ) acting director-general Mr Cosmus Mukoyi said some of the companies producing both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages are coming forward when it comes to standardisation of their products.
However, individuals operating in backyards are usually the ones who create challenges.
“Most of these companies once engaged have shown interest in implementing standardisation. SAZ urges these companies to expedite the process because saving lives through implementing quality standards should be a priority for all companies,” said Mr Mukoyi.
SAZ is currently engaging regulators to make standards mandatory to protect consumers.
On its part, Government is intensifying monitoring and investigations through the Consumer Protection Commission, among other bodies, to curb such practices.
“The Ministry of Health and Child Care, the Zimbabwe Republic Police and the Liquor Licensing Board are working together on the investigation, clearance, non-clearance classification, banning and licensing of new alcoholic drinks in the market,” said Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Minister Dr Jenfan Muswere in a recent post-Cabinet briefing.
Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said: “We are aware that some people are selling fake wines and whisky that are produced in backyard breweries. We have conducted and will continue to carry out raids in areas where such illicit brews are manufactured.”