Cheap whisky in premium bottles: The secret behind discounted liquor prices

An investigative news report shows how illegal rebottling units have expanded their reach across the NCR, gaining a foothold in Faridabad and Gurgaon

Representational photo of a bottling unit. (National Herald archives)
Representational photo of a bottling unit. (National Herald archives)

NH Digital

A clandestine trade involving illegal rebottling units has emerged as the dark secret behind inexplicably low liquor prices in several stores in Faridabad and Gurgaon, leaving connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike questioning the authenticity of their premium spirits as cheap whisky finds its way into used bottles of renowned brands, including Black Label, Glenlivet, Macallan, and the prestigious Amrut Greedy Angels.

An investigative report by Hindustan Times, which detailed the racket, said a man known as Charan has operated an "illegal rebottling unit" in his basement for over a decade. His operation involves refilling used bottles of high-end liquors with lower-grade whisky, resealing them, and distributing them to 18 liquor stores across Faridabad. This deceptive practice raises concerns about the quality and authenticity of the spirits many customers believe they are purchasing.

For instance, a typical 750 ml bottle of Black Label usually retails for around Rs 3,000. However, various online sellers and liquor stores in Gurgaon offer it for as low as Rs 1,800 while profiting by more than Rs 1,000 per bottle. The process behind this deceit is surprisingly straightforward and cost-effective for those involved.

Costs incurred by fraudsters

Scrap dealers provide the initial used bottles for as little as Rs 300. These are then cleaned, fitted with new labels and caps (costing approximately Rs 50 per bottle), and filled with lower-quality whisky valued at Rs 350. The total cost incurred by the illegal rebottler is a mere Rs 750. At the same time, the unsuspecting customer pays a substantial premium, shelling out Rs 1,800 for what they believe is an authentic Black Label bottle.

As per the report, these illegal rebottling operations have expanded their reach across the National Capital Region (NCR), establishing a foothold in Faridabad, Gurgaon, and Delhi liquor stores. The illicit trade thrives thanks to a well-organised network that includes scrap dealers, label manufacturers, liquor shop owners, and even bar managers.

Vijay Pratap Singh, deputy superintendent of police (crime) in Gurgaon, told HT that local law enforcement had cracked down on at least 50 such units. Most seized bottles were of premium brands such as Chivas Regal, Red Label, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie, Black Label, Double Black, and Jack Daniel's.

However, some liquor companies, including Diageo India, have refuted claims of counterfeit production. A Diageo India official dismissed the allegations as "unsubstantiated rumours ahead of the festival season".

Nonetheless, the scale of the illicit operation is daunting. Naresh Kumar, joint commissioner of the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon (MCG), told HT that authorised vendors and ragpickers have reported selling expensive liquor bottles to individuals involved in rebottling. Over 1,000 empty premium liquor bottles are collected in Gurgaon daily, many of which end up back on store shelves.

Kumar explained, "They are washed with chemicals. After that, label makers are brought in. These 'artists' make labels that mimic the originals and paste them using a machine." Subsequently, syringes typically used for animal injections transfer the lower-quality whisky into the premium bottles, which are then sealed with molten silica.

In the last year in Delhi, the Excise Intelligence Unit has registered 479 cases. Seizures of liquor include 2,819 litres of foreign liquor, and 30,520 litres of IMFL (Indian-made foreign liquor), along with 483 arrests and the seizure of 172 vehicles.

Many Delhi residents have been flocking to Gurgaon and Faridabad to take advantage of significantly lower liquor prices. The attraction lies in the possibility of purchasing premium spirits at a fraction of the cost in the capital. The revelation of thriving illegal rebottling units in Faridabad and Gurgaon has only intensified this trend, as consumers seek to ensure the authenticity and quality of their liquor.

As these neighbouring cities become hotspots for bargain hunters, concerns are growing about the extent of the problem and the need for stronger regulation to protect consumers from unknowingly buying counterfeit or sub-par spirits.

This deceptive practice isn't confined to underground operations; even some clubs in Gurgaon have been implicated. Owners and managers admitted to substituting premium spirits with cheaper alternatives to cater to budget-conscious patrons.

Police suspect that some individuals involved in this trade may have worked in bars and clubs, facilitating the swapping of genuine liquor with counterfeit products. As one pub server in Gurgaon quoted by HT noted, “The first two pegs will be the original stuff. After that, it's cheap alcohol. Other than seasoned drinkers, most can't spot the difference.”

This alarming revelation underscores the importance of vigilance when purchasing high-end spirits, particularly in areas affected by this illegal rebottling trade. Authorities have intensified their efforts to combat this practice, aiming to protect consumers and the integrity of premium brands.

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