Be warned of fake alcohol tasters this festive season

By Gatonye Gathura

Fake top branded spirits are already here for Christmas festivities and so are fraudulent tasters. “Don’t be taken in by either,” warn food experts.

Nairobi, previously an almost beer only city has in recent years warmed up to spirits driven by a growing young working class.

The growing palate for spirits, says Stephen Mutoro of the consumer lobby Cofek has also created a huge parallel market for fake spirits mimicking leading brands.

“In many cases it is impossible to tell the fake from genuine, without complex testing technologies,” says Mutoro.

“Forget Mutoro,” says Isaac who is nursing a bottle of ‘ready to drink’ vodka at a city joint.

“I can taste a fake a mile away.” His friends agree and will rarely start on their ‘zingas’ before Isaac has tasted and confirmed to be the real thing.

Isaac is one of many emerging amateur sprits tasters in Nairobi, who are protecting selves and friends from increasing counterfeits.

He told us there are also emerging professional tasters in working class estates in Nairobi who will authenticate that your purchase is indeed genuine.

Counterfeiters of spirits, Isaac says have become so sophisticated that it’s impossible to tell the difference from the packaging or appearances.

“But the real thing has a distinct taste and scent nobody can fake. I will pick it out for you, anytime anywhere,” says Isaac.

But the tasters including Isaac are all fake, ‘don’t listen to them,’ says a new study which recently put samples of top brands in Kenya to extensive testing including tasting.

Food and chemical experts from the University of Nairobi, Germany and Canadian research institutions collected potentially fraudulent top brand spirits from several towns in Kenya including Nairobi.

They also purchased similar brands from Russian online shops and shipped them for testing to Germany.

Brands from Kenya included Bacardi Superior Rum Carta Blanca, Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch Whisky and Smirnoff Red Label No. 21 Vodka all purchased from supermarkets and wine and spirits shops.

From Russian online liquor merchants the team ordered Absolut Vodka, Bacardi Superior Rum Carta Blanca, Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7 Tennessee Whiskey and Johnnie Walker Red Label Scotch Whisky.

The report appears in the October issue of the journal Food Chemistry. The team including chemical expert Prof Isaac Kibwage of the University of Nairobi had also bought authentic samples of the same brands from Germany manufacturers for comparisons.

Led by Alex Okaru of the University of Nairobi, the team used sophisticated chemical analyzing technologies, not available locally and confirmed two of samples from Kenyans and four from Russia to be fakes.

“From lab analysis some of the Smirnoff vodka samples from Kenya showed dramatic differences in their chemical composition compared to authentic products indicating adulteration,” says the report.

The Kenya sourced vodka, the study says had been twice cheaper in cost compared to the genuine item.

Next he samples were subjected to trained food tasters. “The participants were specifically trained in basic techniques of sensory analysis.”

While about a third of the tasters were able to pick some differences they were not able to tell which taste belonged to the fake or genuine product.

“In some cases the testers were able to discriminate between the brands, but unable to assign which one was the premium brand.”

What comes out of this exercise, the study says is that it is difficulty for even trained tasters to identify counterfeited brand spirits by taste.

In general, the study concludes that assessing spirits on the basis of taste, odor, color, texture, and appearance called organoleptic testing is not possible for untrained people and cannot distinguish counterfeit from authentic spirits.

The reason why Isaac or any other amateur tasters will not be able to detect a fake, the researchers say is because of the high counterfeiting technologies being applied today.

But despite this they warn some of the counterfeit beverages may contain harmful ingredients which may endanger public health.

For example, unlabeled ingredients such as flavours or additives, the study says may pose allergenic risks, or in the worst case they may be adulterated with methanol may.

“Put that way, I agree customers especially this Christmas should be cautious and especially keep away from very cheap bargains,” warns Isaac.

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