February 9, 2019 – Dimbula Pathana, Sri Lanka

On February 5, 2019 the Police Narcotics Bureau (PNB) in conjunction with the local Dimbula Pathana police announced the raid of an illegal distillery. The raid which took place on February 4, 2019 was the result of a truck being stopped on the main road in Nawalapitiya by the PNB.

The truck which was heading towards Ja-El, a suburb of Colombo, a popular tourist destination, was found to have a cargo of 2300 bottles of illicit alcohol. After questioning the two occupants of the truck, the PNB mounted an immediate raid on a suburban residence.

Sri Lanka Police Narcotics Bureau
Sri Lanka Police Narcotics Bureau – file photo

The woman occupant of the home, who police later identified as the mastermind of the distillery operation, was arrested along with three other suspects on the property. The search uncovered an additional 124,036 bottles of illicit alcohol ready for distribution.

Along with the bottled fake alcohol, government agents seized 48 barrels, plastic tubing and steel cans used in the distillation process. The PNB spokesperson said that this was the first large scale illegal distillation processing facility ever uncovered in the suburban estate region of the country. The suspects will appear in the Nawalapitiya courts upon completion of the investigation.

Sri Lanka has a strong drinking culture that dates to the 15th century when the island was introduced to alcohol by captive foreigners. The island has two staple forms of alcohol, lager and arrack. Lager is sold in  21-ounce bottles. Lager includes a local brand, Lion Lager, along with the popular Carlsberg which is brewed under license. Imported beers, often hard to find are sold at a high markup to normal retail.

Traditional island favorites made from fermented coconuts are locally called Toddy. It is an arrack liquor that proofs at 33% when made properly. Kasippu is the local moonshine which is most illegally distilled liquor on the island. The two authentic brands of alcohol found on the island are White Diamond and White Label, a smoother rum like arrack. Authentic imported alcoholic brands are widely available at extremely high prices. Imported liquor is served in hotels, restaurants and bars that cater to the increasing number of tourists who visit Sri Lanka.

Deaths due to alcohol misuse, poison alcohol and self-harm are not separate statistics that are individualized in Sri Lanka. The World Health Organization along with scientific health researchers are currently in the process of looking at the causes of an ever-increasing incidence of liver disease among the residents of the island nation. These studies are trying to isolate if it is binge drinking, moonshine or methanol poisoning that is causing an increase in liver failures year over year.

Stories of methanol poisoning from illicit alcohol in Sri Lanka are often confused with excess alcohol consumption. The victims of methanol poisoning on September 23, 2008 were not mistaken by Gampaha Hospital director Dr. Dhammika Mayadunn. On this night the hospital treated 65 victims of methanol poisoning resulting in 10 deaths and several people permanently blinded.

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Dr. Dhammika Mayadunne , told reporters, Himal Kotelawala and Damith Wickramasekara writing for the Sunday Times, victims showed all the symptoms of methyl alcohol poisoning. The consumption of methyl alcohol, a commonly used ingredient in the making of kasippu, can cause serious ill effects, such as blindness, and may even result in death. The substance directly attacks the nervous system.”

Like Bali, Sri Lanka is attracting a surge in international travelers who are unaware of the dangers hidden in liquor bottles. With a history of illegal distillation and the high price of authentic alcohol, Sri Lanka is on the verge of becoming another tourist destination where one drink may be the last drink.

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