Drink special alert

Torpedo juice:

First mixed in World War II, it is made from pineapple juice and the 180-proof grain alcohol fuel used in United States Navy torpedo motors. Various poisonous additives were mixed into the fuel alcohol by Navy authorities to render the alcohol undrinkable, and various methods were employed by the U.S. sailors to separate the alcohol from the poison. Aside from the expected alcohol intoxication and subsequent hangover, the effects of drinking torpedo juice sometimes included mild or severe reactions to the poison, and the drink's reputation developed an early element of risk.

In the first part of the Pacific War, U.S. torpedoes were powered by a miniature steam engine burning 180- or higher-proof ethyl alcohol as fuel. The ethyl alcohol was denatured by the addition of 5 -- 10% "pink lady", a blend of dye, methanol and possibly other ingredients. Methanol causes blindness when ingested, and cannot be made non-poisonous. The methanol was said to be (largely) removed by filtering the fuel mix through a compressed loaf of bread.

Later, a small amount of Croton oil was added to the neutral grain spirits which powered U.S. torpedoes. Drinking alcohol with the oil additive caused painful cramps, internal bleeding and a violent emptying of the bowels. It was intended as a replacement for methanol which had caused blindness in some sailors. To avoid the Croton oil, sailors devised crude stills to slowly separate the alcohol from the poison, as alcohol evaporated at a lower temperature than Croton oil.

Survey time!

Let's say you had a device that used sugar for fuel. And you found that your employees were putting some of that sugar in their coffee instead. Would you:

  1. Implement better inventory control; or
  2. Cut the sugar with rat poison?

And if you chose B -- and you were not the government of a country descended from religious fundamentalists and run by moralistic prohibitionists -- how many consecutive life sentences do you think you would serve in prison for attempted murder?

Prior art:

The Chemist's War: The little-told story of how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition with deadly consequences:

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people.

Although mostly forgotten today, the "chemist's war of Prohibition" remains one of the strangest and most deadly decisions in American law-enforcement history. As one of its most outspoken opponents, Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner of New York City during the 1920s, liked to say, it was "our national experiment in extermination." [...]

Industrial alcohol is basically grain alcohol with some unpleasant chemicals mixed in to render it undrinkable. The U.S. government started requiring this "denaturing" process in 1906 for manufacturers who wanted to avoid the taxes levied on potable spirits. [...] By mid-1927, the new denaturing formulas included some notable poisons -- kerosene and brucine (closely related to strychnine), gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. The Treasury Department also demanded more methyl alcohol be added -- up to 10 percent of total product. It was the last that proved most deadly.


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14 Responses:

  1. Elusis says:

    See also: the addition of Tylenol to hydrocodone to make Vicodin. Because the price for saving up your post-root-canal painkillers to have a little painkiller and booze party should definitely be permanent, painful liver damage.

  2. Sooo...Bacardi 151, pineapple juice and rat poison? Torpedo Juice! It's gonna be a helluva night at Bootie.

  3. Matthew Platte says:

    Chuck Norris, eh? Is there nothing he will not do?

  4. mspong says:

    In Australia and New Zealand, alcohol for industrial and home uses like cleaning was 95% ethanol and 5% methanol, right up until 2007 AFAIK. It is still sold as "methylated spirits" colloquially known as "metho". The poison was replaced with bitrex.

    • Nick Lamb says:

      Many countries will have had roughly the same practice, in the US the usual name is "Denatured alcohol". There is no practical benefit to producing something other than ethanol for these purposes, but since booze is taxed (or in parts of the US, banned outright) it is seen as necessary to artificially create a product that can't be drunk and thus doesn't need to obey the rules for booze.

      The EU standardised a replacement formulation which is too unpleasant to drink without being especially more poisonous than any other alcohol. It is suspected to increase risk of birth defects if you drink it for long enough, but then we're a long way past "that is not a good idea" when you're pregnant and still knocking back bottles of camping fuel until you fall unconscious so that's redundant. In all EU countries that formulation is what you'll get if you buy "methylated spirits" or equivalent now. This contributes to the Single Market ideal because previously a product that was legal in, say, Poland, as an engine cleaner would be classified as booze in France. [Insert jokes about various European lagers here].

      The reason they stuck with methanol previously isn't out of vindictiveness, it's just that humans really, really, really like to be drunk, so if you put most undesirable additives in the booze they'll just build a still and try to get the ethanol back out, whereas methanol is a cheap product that's really hard to remove this way due to having such similar properties to ethanol.

  5. Tolomea says:

    I asked my wife the sugar question (without giving over the context first) her answer was "or you could just give them sugar like normal person".

  6. J. Peterson says:

    Wow. Living in a country that had a "federal poisoning program".

  7. Mark. says:

    You have to buy special denatured alcohols for making certain types of wood finish, because many of the usual denaturants will ruin the finish and ethanol is the best solvent. Yet one more stupidity on top of the poisonings.

  8. jon says:

    Have you read Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook? It is a history of toxicology in the NYC Medical Examiner's Office from the 1910s through late 1930s. Lots of coverage of Prohibition-Era socially engineered poisoning.

  9. Joanna Watch says:

    Tear-gas in the ethanol sold as automobile fuel, in Brazil ..

  10. Patrick Star says:

    Isn't the methanol content offset by the ethanol?
    Ethanol being the antidote for methanol and all (they compete for the same enzyme in the liver - which turns ethanol into acetic acid and methanol into the much more toxic formic acid. If that enzyme is occupied by a lot of ethanol, the methanol is excreted unchanged instead.)

  11. Kaleberg says:

    The Tang Cocktail was thing at a number of tech schools in the 70s. It was 200 proof lab alcohol mixed with Tang to make something like a screwdriver. I never tasted one. It smelled of benzene which even I realized was bad news. According to a physicist friend who was cramming junk into his brain for his orals, the benzene was not poison, but a way of completing the distillation process past the aziotrope.