Officials looking to cap vodka hangover
In a snowy field outside Moscow, an abandoned barn conceals an illicit vodka distillery that produces thousands of bottles of Russia’s national drink for the black market.
In a recent raid, police seized more than 100,000 bottles with counterfeit labels and tax stamps from the barn in the village of Kuchki.
Surrogate alcohol, a cheaper alternative to storebought spirits, accounts for many deaths in Russia every year and is coming under growing scrutiny in a country with one of the highest liquor consumption rates in the world.
This week at least 71 people died in the Siberian city of Irkutsk after drinking bath salts containing toxic methanol in a bid to get a cheap high.
The bottles discovered in Kuchki cost under $2 each — three times less than vodka sold in shops.
“We don’t know what they make this vodka with,” said Alexander Kulikov from Russia’s alcohol regulator.
The equipment at the barn looked clean, but Kulikov recalls a case in which vodka-makers at another illegal facility were working “in mud up to their knees”.
After banning the sale of spirits at night and hiking alcohol taxes, authorities have started cracking down on bootleggers in a bid to curb the damage wreaked by illegally-produced booze.
Officials said they have dismantled more than 170 workshops, seizing over 37 million liters since October 2015.
Authorities are also hoping the crackdown will help address the problem of unpaid taxes by illegal alcohol producers, as low oil prices have hit Russia’s coffers.
A new law came into force in July requiring business owners who sell alcohol to join an electronic registry that tracks each bottle from production to sale, an initiative meant to prevent surrogate booze from making its way onto the shelves.
This has seen legal vodka sales bounce back after years of stagnation — an indication that the black market is shrinking.
Vadim Drobiz, a researcher who studies alcohol markets, said the black market share in hard liquor sales dropped to 50 percent this year after standing at 65 percent in 2015.
But as Russia struggles to pull itself out of a recession that has battered the currency and significantly diminished people’s purchasing power, it seems unlikely the black market will disappear altogether.
According to Drobiz, up to 25 million Russians do not earn enough to purchase liquor at official selling outlets.
Hoping to save a few rubles, the poorest often turn to cosmetics and household products containing alcohol.