New alert over counterfeit cocktails
Forget the psychotropic mushroom shakes. In the hedonistic tourist enclaves of Bali and Lombok it's the cocktails, not the hallucinogens, that you might never come back from.
But that wasn't on the mind of Taranaki-born teenager Liam Davies as he unwittingly drank a methanol-laced cocktail in Lombok over the new year.
His death several days later has thrown the spotlight on Indonesia's market for counterfeit - and sometimes lethal - liquor.
In the Muslim-majority nation, exorbitant alcohol taxes and rampant corruption have spawned a healthy black market.
''It's because there is a sin tax,'' explains a mixologist, Benjamin Browning. ''It's a money thing, plain and simple.''
In Indonesia the import tax for a bottle of liquor is more than 380 per cent, so the incentive to cut alcohol with cheap, locally produced spirits such as fermented rice wine and palm spirits, known locally as arak, is high.
Browning, who consulted bars in Bali before opening a chic establishment in Jakarta, says the problem of fake alcohol is widespread.
''In Bali alone there are three legal arak distilleries and there are more than 450 distilleries making fake booze with palm spirits,'' he says, ''They'll take a bottle of Absolut Vodka and mix it half and half.''
The problem is that arak, which ranges from 20 per cent to 50 per cent alcohol, can be toxic and even fatal if not properly distilled.
Also known as wood alcohol, methanol can be an unintended by-product in the distillation process and consuming it can cause blindness, coma and death.
In 2011 Bali Police confiscated 31,079 litres of illegally produced arak, but last year the figure fell to 14,813 litres. Local expats such as Richard Flax, who heads Bali's emergency services, says the toxic booze is a major concern.
''The alcohol thing, the cause celebre of the day, we are just starting to understand how widespread it is. We are hearing more and more about it and it's getting worse,'' he says.
Last November Flax set up a Facebook page called ''Mugged in Bali'', which has become an online forum for expats sharing their Bali horror stories.
The page is helping to inform people of the dangers and particular drinking holes to avoid.
The underlying problem, agrees Flax, is the tax.
Browning says Indonesian producers aren't thinking about the effects of fake booze, they simply see it as an opportunity to make money, feed the family and pay the rent.
He likens Indonesia to America in the prohibition era, and he doesn't mean it in a hip, underground way.
Several people have died and countless others have fallen ill from consuming methanol-laced drinks in recent years.
In 2011, the Perth rugby player Michael Denton died after drinking arak on holiday with his teammates in Bali. In the same year, a Newcastle nurse, Jamie Johnston, suffered brain damage after drinking a methanol-infused concoction on Lombok.
Michaela Pechac, a Swedish backpacker who travelled to Gili Trawangan, a police-free party island off the mainland of Lombok, also lost her fiance to methanol poisoning last June. She has since set up a Facebook page called ''A drink to die from''.
''We expected a cocktail, not a stay in the hospital,'' says a Melbourne man, Nomiki Hatzis, commenting on the page about his holiday in Bali late last year.
''Prior to our visit we had never heard of such things ... And by such things I mean of the poisoning and deaths.''
Even the head of the Bali Tourism Board, Ngurah Wijaya, admits it's a problem.
''In a country like Indonesia it is very difficult to control the alcohol that is produced locally,'' he says. Wijaya says enforcement of regulations is lax.
As an indication of just how lax the policing is, Michael Burchett, the former chairman of the Bali Hotels Association, says that up to half of the alcohol coming into Indonesia is off the black market.
In response to the death of Liam Davies, the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, says he will raise the issue with Indonesian authorities and this week the government added a specific warning on poisoning from alcoholic drinks containing methanol to its official travel advice for Indonesia.
Flax says sticking to beer and wine, and drinking in reputable establishments is the safest bet.
An Australian tourist, 19-year-old Kevin Mathews, seems to know the deal. ''We only drink from the bottle,'' he says, gesturing to the Bintang beer bottle in his hand as walks down Kuta main street.
-Sydney Morning Herald