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Turkey: Poisonous moonshine flows amid alcohol tax hikes

Heavy taxes on alcoholic beverages have led to a spate of deaths, with at least 84 people dying in December
A customer shops for alcoholic beverages at a supermarket ahead of a 17-day nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, in Istanbul on April 29 2021 (AFP)
By in
Istanbul, Turkey

The Turkish government's decision to impose ever-higher taxes on alcoholic beverages is leading to a rise in homemade liquor across the country, which has already resulted in a number of fatal poisonings.

Turks have begun distilling their own liquor from black market ethyl alcohol, while others put their lives in the hands of bootleggers. According to the state-run Anadolu Agency, 84 people died from methyl alcohol poisoning in December alone.

'Why would they want to poison their own customers? You buy from a guy for years, then one day, he gives you a toxic bottle. It doesn’t even make sense' 

Ali, home brewer

Middle East Eye spoke to a number of people who buy ethyl alcohol - also known as ethanol - from black market sellers, all of whom wanted their identities concealed.

Amongst them is Ali, 53, who has been making his own liquor since 2002, the year that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power and began imposing heavy taxes on alcohol, the consumption of which is generally viewed as sinful by conservative Muslims.

Unlike police and government officials, Ali said he did not believe that the bootleggers were responsible for the alcohol poisoning.

“Why would they want to poison their own customers? You buy from a guy for years, then one day, he gives you a toxic bottle. It doesn’t even make sense,” he said.

Ali currently runs an influential Facebook group with over 12,000 members, of which he said the main purpose was to educate people on alcohol, cocktail, and wine culture.

Ever-rising taxes

The organisation Turkish Public Alcohol Policy Watch says that alcohol consumption in Turkey is the lowest in Europe, albeit still significantly higher than most other Muslim-majority countries.

But despite the seemingly low demand, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has over the past 20 years gradually hardened regulations on alcohol production, advertising and consumption.

In 2002, as soon as Erdogan’s AKP came to power, it adopted a new Special Consumption Tax (OTV), and raised the tax on alcoholic beverages from 18 percent to a staggering 48 percent.

OTV on alcohol has been raised systematically since then. Shortly after the announcement was made of the dozens of deaths from alcohol poisoning in December, a further tax on alcoholic beverages of 47.4 percent was imposed.

Ali's store bought distillation device (MEE/Mefaret Aktas)
Ali's store bought distillation device (MEE/Mefaret Aktas)

Now, almost 76 percent of the price of every bottle of alcoholic beverage sold goes to the government in taxes. Consequently, the number of people who distil their own liquor at home from pure alcohol has increased in recent years.

Another huge blow to the drinking public came when the government banned the sales of ethyl alcohol for domestic use in 2020. People once bought ethyl alcohol at supermarkets and pharmacies to make their own liquor have been forced to turn to shady black market sellers to purchase pure alcohol.

A quick search for “ethyl alcohol” on Facebook groups brings up thousands of groups and ads from underground dealers who ship to your home.

Because there is no governmental regulation, most of this alcohol is not what it purports to be. It includes an extremely toxic form of alcohol called methanol, also known as methyl alcohol.

Methyl alcohol is the simplest and purest form of alcohol that can be separated by distilling. The median lethal dose for methanol for an adult is about 100 ml. Even a couple of tablespoons of it can cause permanent vision loss, kidney failure or death when consumed.

Although it is widely used as a cleaner, paint thinner or as antifreeze in cars and planes; methanol is easily removed during distillation if alcohol production is regulated.

Most moonshiners, however, do not do the necessary testing to make sure their final batch is not contaminated with methanol.

Ali tries to keep his Facebook group free of suspicious members who try to conduct business there. In the beginning, he was a member of other people’s groups, all of which sooner or later turned into platforms where people sold and bought ethyl or distilled bootleg alcohol.

Frustrated, Ali started his own group to share what he likes: the culture of drinking. With every tax increase, his group attracted more members. He told MEE that after the last major tax increase, a thousand people joined the group in just one week.

Although he started making his own liquor after Erdogan’s government came to power, Ali said his main purpose was to make high quality, tasty vodka, wine or raki - the national beverage of Turkey, which has been brewed in Anatolia since at least the early 19th century, but was first mentioned by an Ottoman explorer in 1630.

Of the people interviewed by Middle East Eye for this article, Ali seemed to know the most about wine and liquor production. He doesn’t only distil alcohol; he also makes his own. He wants to start his own vineyard and become a wine producer.

‘Nothing ever happens to us’

Koray is a 57-year-old retiree living in Bodrum, a world-famous seaside town on Turkey's Aegean coast. His brewing method is more simple. He buys labelled, bootleg alcohol, which he believes comes both from local producers and neighbouring countries like Greece and Bulgaria.

He often buys under-the-counter Turkish brands such as Volan and Alkokim and mixes in different flavours. His friends love his “rum”, which he makes using “rum ice cream flavouring” he buys online. There are hundreds of websites that sell kits to mix in different flavours with alcohol, including favourites produced by major brands.

'My friends have been doing this for a while so I trusted them. I made them drink my first batch. Nobody went blind. I don’t even drink much'

- Asli, advertising executive

Almost every resident of Bodrum makes his own bogma raki, a homemade, low alcohol version of Turkey’s national drink. According to Koray's calculations, making his own raki is eight times cheaper than buying the legally available bottles in stores.

Asli, 49, is an advertising executive in Istanbul, where most of the alcohol-related deaths happened.

She first started by buying black market alcohol, making plum and cherry liqueurs for herself and her friends. Her liqueurs were so well received that she started gifting them to her clients. After the tax increases, she asked one of her experienced friends to teach her how to distil alcohol.

Asked whether she was afraid of getting sick or dying from intoxication, she joked: “We have this ‘nothing ever happens to us’ mentality as a nation. If a Turk finds a bag on the street, she will kick it to check for a bomb. We check gas leaks with a lighter! As they say here: 'Our fate is entrusted to God.’"

"My friends have been doing this for a while so I trusted them. I made them drink my first batch. Nobody went blind. I don’t even drink much," she explained.

Asli's homemade distillation kit (MEE/Mefaret Aktas)
Asli's homemade distillation kit (MEE/Mefaret Aktas)

Now using her alcohol meter, she distils her own vodka using ethyl alcohol, coal, coffee filters and a plastic bottle.

She says she had to jump through many hoops to get her contraband alcohol. First she had to find the phone number of a seller from a network of friends.

After she called and left a message, she received a text message about the payment method from an unknown number. Once she made the payment, the product was sent to her address, under a fake name.

None of the people MEE spoke to said they planned to stop producing alcohol. Quite the opposite. Just like Ali, Asli also wants to start making her own alcohol, for fun.

“I run an advertising agency so I bottle the stuff I make, and give it to my clients as a gift. One of my clients liked it so much he wanted to buy some, but I don’t make it to sell," she said.

Asli, like most Turks who drink alcohol, believes the tax increases are an ideological intervention on her lifestyle.

“[The AKP] know we will never vote for them. Neither we, nor musicians, nor people who drink in bars are their potential voters, so they try to marginalise us,” she said, adding that the government's "latest hangup" was live music.

Erdogan, who declared a midnight curfew for live music in the early days of the pandemic, recently banned it near hospitals, student dormitories, and retirement homes as well.

Asli said the government was solely responsible for the deaths caused by the contraband alcoholic beverages. 

“Nowhere in the world do you see tax rates this high on alcohol,” she said. “The government pays the salaries of the imams with tax income that they receive from my drinking. That is a travesty to me.”

Risks from homemade product

Even when you distil your own alcohol, there is a risk of accidental poisoning.

As knowledgeable as he is, Ali mixed up his home-distilled ethyl and methyl alcohol bottles once. He accidentally placed a toxic bottle of methanol he uses for cleaning purposes, with his distilled liquor bottles. Ten minutes after the first sip, he started having a headache and a sharp pain in his eye. He immediately threw up and has been much more cautious and methodical since then. 

Another self-distiller, Serkan, is more confident about his finished product. “If I gave you a blind tasting with some major brands and mine, you wouldn’t be able to tell which one is homemade. In fact, mine is better,” he claimed.

A 43-year-old business owner from Istanbul, he has been making his own vodka, raki and fruit liqueurs for himself and his wife for two years.

He serves them to family and friends at home gatherings. It takes Serkan about three hours to make a batch. People often offer money to buy his drink but he never accepts it.

“I know what I make is not toxic. But who knows? Someone buys from me, drinks too much, trips and falls or gets alcohol poisoning because he drinks too much. Then what am I going to do?

"I cannot be responsible for other people’s wellbeing. I would never sell it to anyone," he explained.

Nursen Basaran, president of the Turkish Society of Toxicology, believes most of the recent poisoning cases reported were from people who bought contraband liquor from black-market sellers. She doesn’t think people who distill on their own at home are at risk.

'If you go to a restaurant with three of your friends, the bill will be the equivalent of an apartment’s monthly rent now. It’s mindblowing'

- Serkan, business owner

Serkan said he was sold toxic alcohol by a black market seller once. He said he could tell after one sip that it didn’t taste right. He never bought from the same seller again. Now he uses a testing device to check for methyl alcohol.

Asli and Serkan both believe another reason many Turks make liquor at home is because they cannot afford to go out to bars and restaurants for social drinking anymore. Drinking has become a home-based social affair.

“If you go to a restaurant with three of your friends, the bill will be the equivalent of an apartment’s monthly rent now. It’s mindblowing,” Serkan said.

“We should boycott these taxes. Each time they raise prices, everyone says, ‘we will boycott’, but there is no boycott culture in Turkey. They would do it for three days, the fourth day they would give up.”

There is a running joke in the country right now. People call Tekel, Turkey's national tobacco and alcohol company privatized in 2008, "the tax office". When they go to Tekel stores to buy alcohol or cigarettes, they post selfies with captions such as: "Came to the tax bureau."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.