Killer cocktail: methanol poisoning

Approx read: 3 mins

As the peak dry season wraps up in Indonesia, budget travellers will start pouring into the country, looking for waves, cheap eats, and even cheaper drinks. Travellers beware: the most dangerous thing in Bali isn’t a kamikaze motorist or a sharp reef.

It comes with a little umbrella.

Cheap cocktails can get you killed in Indonesia. As taxes on liquor continue to rise, shopkeepers have started cutting spirits with locally-brewed arak, which can contain toxic methanol. The taste of methanol is similar to ethanol, the alcohol in beer and wine.

But unlike the ethanol in booze that produces light euphoria, and perhaps a thumping hangover the next day, methanol produces formaldehyde and formic acid, destroying soft tissues along the way.  Blue lips and fingernails, blindness, seizures, liver and renal failure, pancreatitis, coma and death follow. According to Bali physician Dr Lanang Suartana Patra, ‘It’s like your body is being embalmed from the inside out.’

It doesn’t take much: permanent blindness can occur after ingesting as little as 30cc of methyl alcohol, an amount that’ll barely fill a shot glass.

Treatment is available: it usually begins with booze. By dosing a methanol-poisoned person with ethanol, the ethanol zips to the liver faster, and keeps it ‘occupied’ from processing the fermaldehyde-producing methanol. Secondary steps may include dialysis and more drugs to eliminate methanol from the body.  But treatment has to happen fast. And the earliest signs of poisoning resemble regular drunkenness, which can lead to time-consuming misdiagnoses as the clock ticks.

A private group, Lifesaving Initiatives About Methanol, (LIAM), dedicated to educating people of methanol’s dangers, was started in 2012, after 19-year-old Liam Davies died of poisoning in Bali. But despite growing awareness, arak continues to make its way into cocktails.

Bali distillers and bartenders aren’t serial killers. Making alcohol is a complicated process. When arak is distilled at the wrong temperature, it produces methanol as a by-product. Why arak? Imported alcohol is so highly taxed that up to 50% of it is counterfeit, according to the International Federation of Spirit Producers. This not only includes fake labels, but also cutting the good stuff with arak to stretch profits. Even if the label on the bottle is real, the contents could be deadly.

Liam Davies asked the bartender if the alcohol was the real thing and was assured that the vodka was imported. He asked the bartender to make him  a drink from an unopened bottle; the bartender complied. Sadly, the imported vodka turned out to be cut with local arak, poured into an imported bottle and resealed.

The only way to be sure you’re not drinking poison is not to drink it. Drink the duty-free you brought from home (up to 1 litre per person is allowed into the country) or stick to beer.

These days, you don’t have to go to Bali to go blind.

Methanol poisonings have occurred in Turkey, Nigeria, the Czech Republic and the UK. Over 90 people from Mumbai died from a single bad batch of homemade alcohol in 2015. Kentucky rednecks, despite over a century in the backyard booze business, regularly succumb to moonshine poisoning.

These are some of the symptoms of methanol poisoning:

• Difficulty breathing

• Blurred vision

• Agitation

• Dizziness

• Stomach pain

No matter where you are, if you expect you’ve been poisoned, get to a hospital immediately. Tell the people you’re with that you think you’ve been poisoned with methanol; by the time you arrive, you may not be in any shape to communicate with medical staff.

Until countries with unregulated alcohol industries raise awareness and enforce regulation, travellers have to decide what risks they’ll take for a taste of culture.


Click here to watch arak in the making – video kindly provided by Lifesaving Initiatives About Methanol – LIAM

Arak in the making. This shows how your Cheap/free drinks are made, not a nice hotel for miles!! Drink Duty free, beer, wine, premix, cider - Tell your friends, share. This is REALITY

From the film: ‘Arak in the making. This shows how your Cheap/free drinks are made, not a nice hotel for miles!!
Drink Duty free, beer, wine, premix, cider – Tell your friends, share.
This is REALITY’

Sarah is a blogger, writer and amateur palaeontologist from New Orleans. When not writing or digging dinosaurs, she teaches English.