I was enjoying a Christmas martini – that’s it above. You can see the festive holly around the glass. In fact it was a vodka martini: I’m not always a gin martini snob, though I admit that I sometimes am. And as I drank I spared a thought (actually a number of rather divergent thoughts) for Lauren Platts, lately of Sheffield, my home town in England. That's her below.
A year or so back Ms. Platts, a student at Sheffield University, bought a bottle of “vodka” from a local corner shop. The man behind the counter said, “All this stuff will make you blind”. She thought he was joking, and possibly he was, but he certainly must have known he was selling bootlegged liquor. The girl drank about a third of the bottle mixed with lemonade before going out for the night. I’m going to imagine that she may have done some more drinking in the course of the evening.
Next morning, as she later told BBC, some months after the event, “I woke up with the worst migraine I have ever had.” I don’t know how bad her migraines usually were, but she went on, “I was throwing up, I couldn’t keep anything down. I wasn’t able to get out of bed for two days.” And then things got worse and stayed worse. “My vision goes blurred, I have black blotches and I tend to lose my peripheral vision quite a lot. It’s really scary when you can’t see anything when you are driving or even walking down the street trying to cross the road. I think I might have it for good but I’m just grateful to be alive or not completely blind.” Well yes, I imagine it might be a little scary if you can’t see anything when you’re driving, and not only for the driver, still ... Impaired sight may be the least of it. Nerve damage and the inability to walk are also on the menu.
We all know that people are naïve and stupid, which is why laws exist to protect them, and it does seem that the Sheffield Trading Standards Office has been very active in stamping out dangerous and potentially poisonous fake vodka, which is likely to contain industrial alcohol, and possibly chloroform. Though results are mixed. In one case, a Sheffield shopkeeper was fined £582 for keeping 674 bottles of counterfeit vodka under his counter. The council called the fine derisory, as would any sane person.
Still, a significant cause of the problem, a reason bootlegging is a profitable business in the UK, may be because booze is so damn expensive there. The store brand vodka at my local L.A. supermarket after sales tax costs less than $9, the equivalent of just over £5, and there are certainly cheaper ones around. Whereas in the UK the duty and value added tax alone on a legitimate 70cl bottle of vodka total £8.89, the equivalent of $14.63, so no bottle of real vodka in the UK is ever going to cost much less than £10. In a perfect world this would lead to moderation in the kingdom. In the real world it leads to people drinking antifreeze. Lauren Platt's bottle cost £5.99.
If nothing else, the Lauren Platts case does, I think, give us a reason to drink martinis rather than vodka and lemonade. If you have in front of you a glass of scarcely diluted liquor than claims to be vodka, the taste and the smell are going to tell you right away if something’s wrong. That might not, of course, necessarily stop some people from drinking it.