Czech government eases ban on liquor sales

Photo: CTK

Czech authorities believe they have the methanol crisis under control, and they have eased the ban on spirits sales. As of Thursday afternoon, hard liquor produced before 2012 can be sold without restrictions. But the government has also warned that the risk of poisoning is still very high as another two patients with methanol intoxication have been admitted to hospital over the last 24 hours.

Leoš Heger
Czech Health Minister Leoš Heger on Thursday announced what many Czech drinkers, bar owners and liquor producers have been anxiously awaiting for the last two weeks: that the government was partially lifting the general ban on sales of alcohol stronger than 20 percent.

The easing of the ban comes into effect immediately which means alcohol produced before January 1, 2012, can be sold without further restrictions; newly produced liquor with new excise stamps and certificates of origin can also be put back on the shelves while retailers were given 60 days to document the origin of alcohol made between January 1 and September 14, 2012, when the ban was introduced.

Open bottles of alcohol in bars and restaurants will also have to be destroyed unless their owners have them tested for the presence of methanol at their own expense. Health Minister Heger said the measures also apply to any exports of Czech-made and Czech-bottled liquor.

“The procedures are identical for both the Czech domestic market and for exports. The time limit of January 1, 2012 was chosen with regards to the safety of consumers as well as to the needs of the market which could be hurt if we had pushed the limit even further back in time.”

Photo: CTK
Some 21 million litres of spirits have been withheld during the partial prohibition, around a third of which was produced before 2012 and can be therefore immediately returned onto the market, according to Czech liquor producers. But clearing the rest will be a nightmare, says Tomáš Otta, manager of the Czech Republic’s largest liquor importer, Global Spirits.

“I have counted that - in the worst case scenario - I have to prepare 3.6 million certificates. We’ll have to coordinate with the producers and make it easier somehow, by putting the forms online and being able to certify our products on some website. The situation comes close to crisis management.”

Tomáš Otta is also deputy head of the Union of Spirits Producers and Importers, a lobby group which complained that the general ban on spirits sales affected mainly legitimate producers. Now, Mr Otta says the partial lifting of the ban and the conditions that come with it are also unfair.

“All our products are international and certified worldwide, and I think we are victims of the ban which was universal. Now, the easing of the ban also applies across the board which means that the people who were absolutely not involved in the crisis have to carry the costs. That’s what it’s like: an absurd, Kafkaesque theatre is what’s going on.”

Tomáš Otta,  photo: Czech Television
Czech distillers resumed production on Thursday, but they are unable to meet the renewed demand from retailers and restaurants, and say that new liquor could be available early next week.

But the government has strongly warned that the methanol crisis is by no means over. Some 15,000 litres of tainted alcohol are still unaccounted for, and two new cases of methanol poisonings have been registered in the northeast of the country. The DPA agency reported that a man in Poland died on Tuesday after drinking bootleg liquor imported from the Czech Republic.