Czechs Seek Ways to Ease Ban of 20 Million Liquor Bottles

Czech Premier Petr Necas may say today when bars and stores can begin restocking empty liquor shelves. His government will still need to solve what to do with millions of bottles quarantined in warehouses after methanol- laced drinks killed 26 people.

Ministers in Prague will debate options how to allow sales of newly produced alcohol and some of the 20 million bottles that were locked in stockrooms after the government imposed a ban on hard liquor sales two weeks ago. More than 30,000 hospitality businesses have 4 million liters of hard liquor they aren’t allowed to sell, Necas said yesterday.

The strictest nationwide liquor ban in 20 years forced bars and stores to lock away bottles from public use. The prohibition hurt liquor makers such as Paris-based Pernod Ricard SA (RI), which owns the Czech liqueur Becherovka, and is costing the government in lost tax revenue.

“We will be looking for solutions that will minimize losses for the hospitality sector,” Necas said. “Our intention will be to synchronize the measures, which means sales of new liquor and freeing a significant part of the locked-up liquor.”

Government officials are debating the implications of lifting the ban. About 70 percent of the alcohol stored in stockrooms is safe, Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek said on the public Czech Television yesterday.

‘More Complicated’

“It’s more complicated with the remaining 30 percent, but that doesn’t mean that all of it is risky,” Kalousek said.

Even if the government rules later today to ease the ban, the actual freeing up of the locked-up bottles may be postponed for several days, the CTK newswire reported, citing Agriculture Minister Petr Bendl.

Police on Sept. 24 said they found the source of methyl- alcohol used to lace beverages and charged two men with public endangerment, with a possible jail sentence of up 20 years. Prosecutors may also seek an “exceptional punishment,” according to state prosecutor Roman Kafka.

The men intentionally provided the mixture of methyl- alcohol and ethanol in order to enrich themselves, and the main suspect is a 42-year-old man from the eastern region of Moravskoslezsko, according to Kafka.

Cheaper methyl-alcohol maximizes profits for the producers and distributors, and such spirits are also sold without a government liquor-tax stamp.

Authorities are still searching for about 15,000 liters of tainted liquor, Police President Martin Cervicek said, warning against the consumption of any spirits of doubtful origin.

Bootleg Labels

The illegal beverages in the country’s worst outbreak of mass alcohol poisoning in three decades were sold in bottles under fake labels from at least two Czech liquor makers, according to police. The poisonous drinks were sold at discounts in bottles labeled as vodka or tuzemak, a local rum-like alcoholic beverage. Several people went blind or fell into coma after consuming it.

“We have a full confession, including the description of the action that took place, including the motivation of this person, including the process of creating the base distribution network,” Kafka said.

The Czech ban is hurting the budget as the state collects about 750 million koruna ($39 million) a month in taxes from hard liquor sales, according to Ladislav Mincic, a deputy finance minister. A longer ban would “complicate” efforts to cut the budget gap, he said on Sept. 16.

To contact the reporters on this story: Peter Laca in Prague at placa@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.