Earlier this year, following a European Union health and safety directive, the Spanish government banned restaurants from using refillable olive oil and vinegar cruets, requiring them to provide labeled bottles of condiments on their tables. But what about those homemade digestifs kept out of sight in empty whiskey bottles, such as orujo, a fiery spirit made from distilled wine pressings, or patxaran, a sloe-flavored liqueur from Navarre? Both of these drinks are routinely offered in Spain as a chupito, or shot, at the end of a meal, often on the house.
The country’s spirits producers, who sell around 10 million liters a year, say that they are being outsold by the black market when it comes to these drinks, which are sold in many reputable establishments. Not only does this deprive the taxman of revenue, but it also puts customers’ health at risk. In response, the Drugs and Organized Crime Unit of the Spanish National Police recently teamed up with Portugal’s National Republican Guard to put a stop to this illegal trade.
On November 3, officers from both forces launched raids as part of Operation Cactus, arresting 16 people. Six people were detained in the northwestern province of Galicia, which borders with Portugal, and some 65,000 liters of pure alcohol were seized, along with bogus labels and hundreds of kilograms of antifreeze, used to thicken the fake liquor. A further 41 searches were carried out in homes, garages and warehouses. Police estimate that each of those arrested was making around €4,000 a month from the sale of illegal alcohol. Among the ringleaders was Carlos Antonio Martínez Abollo, the owner of a registered distillery, who is now in prison awaiting trial on charges of illegal possession of firearms after police found four assault rifles, 12 pistols and three shotguns, along with large amounts of ammunition, in his home. They also discovered around €350,000 in cash.
The Spanish police say that Martínez Abollo sold part of his distillery’s output off the books, and found some 25,000 liters of grain alcohol in a warehouse that was being sold as orujo. When questioned, Martínez Abollo denied that the alcohol was in any way dangerous, and said that he and his family drank it. Police say the gang offered their products at around a quarter of the price of legal producers throughout Galicia.
Another of those arrested, Justo Alonso Fernández, had two starting pistols in his home, along with a taser stun gun and €7,000 in cash. The police say that he found any number of ways to transport alcohol – including using a caravan or tanker trucks – and that he planned to ship his next batch from Portugal in vats loaded in a van, which in turn was loaded onto a breakdown truck. The gang was also reportedly planning to import alcohol powder from the United States.
Operation Cactus was launched 18 months ago after Portuguese police contacted their Spanish counterparts for permission to wiretap a gang that was shipping alcohol into Spain illegally. Officers from both forces have spent months listening in to conversations between the gang on both sides of the border.
Orujos de Galicia, the denomination of origin that represents around 100 companies in the sector, has called on the Spanish government to set an example and end the trade in illegal alcohol. The organization’s president, José Antonio Feijóo, says that many well-known restaurants throughout Spain are serving contraband booze. “You go to restaurants in Madrid, and they all have contacts in Galicia that send them home-made spirits. The authorities here are obliged to stop this. We have to be more aware of the dangers to the public.” So, next time you’re offered a chupito at the end of your meal, you might want to ask to see the label.