R750 for Jack and R650 for Richelieu: Booze is easy to find in SA – but it’s not cheap
A thriving – and sometimes quite efficient – black market has emerged since South Africa's second ban on booze sales, and it is thriving, with prices as high as five times what they were before lockdown.
The trade is common, with both buyers and sellers easily found, say people close to those who own and manage bars, pubs, and restaurants in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, and Durban.
“People are selling alcohol for extreme prices,” Andre*, a source close to a Pretoria restaurant said.
“Liquor prices have gone up considerably from the first day of the second alcohol ban. People will pay these prices because they are desperate,” Olivia*, a source close to a Johannesburg pub, told Business Insider South Africa.
Isabella*, a source close to a Durban pub, said: “I hear from customers that alcohol prices on the black market are astronomical.”
“The illegal trade is minting it,” Liam*, a source close to another Durban pub.
Spirits including vodka, whisky, brandy, gin, tequila, and rum are all in high demand in underground circles, and everyone Business Insider spoke to had a yarn to tell about a sale in this category.
Olivia said that Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey was very popular and a 750-millilitre (ml) bottle was selling for R750 on the black market, whereas the price in the shops was usually about R250.
A bottle of 750ml bottle of Richelieu Brandy, which retails for R160, was selling for an underground price of R650, she said.
Andre said he knew of a 750ml bottle of First Watch Whisky that changed hands as contraband for R800. It usually sells for about R160.
Lily*, a source close to a Cape Town pub, said: “People are paying a lot of money for liquor, like R450 for a 750ml bottle of Olof Bergh Brandy", which typically retails for around R140.
Beer prices have shot up too, though less so.
Isabella said that bootleggers were selling a quart of beer, equal to 750ml, for R40 compared to R10 before lockdown.
“A case of 12 quarts of beer costs about R120, but illicit prices range from R400 to R600 depending on who supplies them,” she added.
A source in Johannesburg said he bought a case of 24 Castle Lite 250ml beers for R500 from a smuggler in his neighbourhood, whereas it usually retails for a little over R200.
The liquor ban and resulting black market have pushed up wine prices to new heights too.
Liam said that in Durban, a 750 ml bottle of Four Cousins Natural Sweet Red was selling for between R200 and R300. It usually sells for about R50.
Olivia said that she was getting requests daily from people looking for alcohol.
“People are saying, don’t you have any stock? Can’t you organise me something?” she said.
The underground alcohol trade was “active,” said Christo*, a source close to Johannesburg pub. “You can get whatever you want,” he added.
“I can show you 20 emails and 20 text messages that people have sent to me asking if I have this or that. No one has stopped drinking. I can tell you that,” Christo said.
The black-market dealers are better organised than during the first alcohol ban, and improved distribution channels had developed. “Communication and supply chains are better,” he added.
People operating the underground alcohol markets were “opportunists”, who knew a brewer or someone who could make alcoholic drinks, Christo said.
“It is not people who are usually in the business. It is outsiders in to make a quick buck,” he added.
Some owners of bars, pubs, and restaurants cleared out their stocks of alcohol soon after government had imposed the second ban to avoid the risk of theft associated with break-ins or to stop their hoard of beer from expiring.
The sale of this liquor stash garnered anything from tens of thousands of rand to millions of rand, according to three sources.
'Sanitiser' may sometimes have a little extra in the bottle – but not everyone is being coy
Sellers of liquor are finding new and ingenious ways of disguising the products they sell under the counter. One way to disguising spirits was to put it into bottles and label it as a sanitiser product, Christo said.
Liquor peddlers move spirits, such as vodka and gin, in this way because this alcohol had a similar colour to sanitiser liquid, he added.
Other dealers use containers marked “sanitiser” to move all liquor types.
People were also packing this hard tack into different branding and bottling, Christo said.
Yet there are some people that are openly selling liquor.
Olivia said that she knew of Johannesburg restaurants that were open and selling liquor because they are desperate to get business.
“People packed out a restaurant last Saturday night, there was no social distancing, and the place sold liquor,” she added.
Andre told Business Insider a similar tale about a restaurant in Pretoria.
“One restaurant owner told me he offers liquor to his clientele. Otherwise, he will have to close. He faces having to close this restaurant either by the police shutting him down or because of financial ruin. He would rather take the chance. This situation turns honest people into criminals,” he added.
There was an impression that the police enforced the lockdown liquor laws strictly in the suburbs, but they were lax in the townships because there was more money in the suburbs, Christo said.
Another trend was that there was a proliferation of spirit distilleries and backyard brewers of beer, Christo said.
Informal brewing had exploded again like under the first alcohol ban as state regulations forced major corporations like South African Breweries, Heineken South Africa, and Distell to stop producing and supplying their products, he added.
The longer the alcohol ban remained in place, the more the supply of underground beer and spirits would grow, Christo said.
* Real names withheld.