The vapour trials

Related tags Machine Portman group Alcoholic beverage Vodka

A Bristol licensee has bought a machine that allows her customers to inhale spirits rather than drink them. But is this the image the licensed trade...

A Bristol licensee has bought a machine that allows her customers to inhale spirits rather than drink them. But is this the image the licensed trade wants to portray? Jackie Annett reports.

As a customer, I must admit it sounds like a great thing to do on a Friday night after work: nip down to the local and inhale a shot of vodka in the hope that it will pick me up and help me forget the stresses of the working week. But at a time when the trade is struggling harder than ever to shrug off a negative image associated with binge-drinking and late-night disorder in towns and city centres, should it be entertaining the idea of something so controversial?

Many people think it shouldn't and insist inhaling alcohol could be dangerous. Professor Oliver James from Newcastle University has warned that inhaling alcohol in such a way could lead to brain damage and alcohol advisory groups have also slammed the new invention.

Trading Standards is currently investigating whether the machine is illegal and The Portman Group has condemned its use. The Portman's Margaret Michie told The Publican: "Since AWOL (alcohol without liquid) is not a drink, it is not covered by The Portman Group's code of practice. However, we don't think that the idea of 'snorting' alcohol is particularly compatible with the notion of responsible drinking. At a time when promotions in pubs and bars are under the spotlight we expect that responsible retailers will shun this gimmick."

Nor has it been welcomed by road safety experts who feel it could lead to an increase in drink-driving because, although one unit wouldn't necessarily register on a breathalyser test, it would almost certainly impair a driver's concentration.

So what an earth was the licensee thinking of? Liz Lewitt runs Il Bordello, a bar on Bristol's waterfront that is primarily a members' club but opens to the general public on a Tuesday evening. The negative press coverage, which has snowballed over the last few weeks, has angered her.

Rather than promote excessive drinking, she claims she is an advocate of drinking in moderation who doesn't even believe in holding happy hours or two-for-one drinks promotions. According to Liz, the whole thing has been blown out of proportion.

"AWOL is not designed to get people off their faces. The whole point of the machine is to allow people to appreciate the taste and aroma of the spirit by inhaling it rather than drinking it. That's why it's particularly good for inhaling flavoured vodkas."

She insists that if customers wanted to get blind drunk, the machine would prove a hindrance rather than a help. "It takes around half an hour to inhale less than a 25ml shot - whereas you could knock one back in a matter of seconds. So I can't see how it can be dangerous, although I admit I'm not an expert. The people who have criticised the machine should come down to the bar and try it for themselves."

So has the negative press coverage been unfair? The machine's inventor Dominic Simler certainly thinks so. He told The Publican: "We believe the machine is safe as long as people don't misuse it. It's not designed for people to snort alcohol but rather to inhale it through the mouth.

"Of course we can't stop people from misusing it but we do believe the bar is responsible and will not allow the machine to be used in this way. We believe it could reduce hangovers and is just a fun thing for people to try."

And the invention has certainly gone down well with customers. The bar has noticed a number of new faces over recent weeks keen to check out the new device for themselves. Caroline Sinclair and her friend Sabrina Silk - both from Bristol - decided to try out the machine for the first time after watching the local news.

Caroline said: "I love it. I'm really impressed because it's something different. It's something I might like to do again on a special occasion like my birthday. Then I can bring my friends along who haven't tried it and it'll be a laugh. I can't honestly see how it would be dangerous and wouldn't try it if I was driving. I must admit you do get bored after a while though because it is quite unsociable."

Sabrina was also impressed, but admitted that she became bored after a while. "I do really like it but after about 10 minutes I was bored. It's not a very sociable thing to do and because it takes so long you wouldn't want to do it more than once. I don't think the bar is being irresponsible by installing the machine, after all we're all adults. The only thing I would say is that it looks quite seedy and I feel like a bit of a drug addict stood here inhaling like this. But I'm glad I tried it."

It would appear that Professor Oliver James was a little hasty when he said the machine could lead to brain damage. After speaking with Dominic, he has now retracted his comments and has promised to conduct research into the effects of inhaling alcohol in this way at his own expense. It could take years before he reports back with his findings. No doubt in the meantime Il Bordello will continue to attract more and more curious customers.

However, other licensees who may be thinking of buying a machine for their own bar would be well advised to hold off for now - at least until trading standards has given it the all clear.

What is it like?

Il Bordello is apparently the only bar in the country that is currently using this device which allows customers to inhale spirits rather than drink them.

It works by mixing oxygen and alcohol together, giving off a vapour that you inhale through a tube. You can choose whatever spirit you desire: vodka, tequila, bourbon or gin. I opted for flavoured vodka - on the barstaff's recommendations.

Inhaling alcohol in this way does allow you to appreciate the taste and aroma of the spirit - and for this reason I wouldn't like to try it with anything that tastes too strong, such as tequila or bourbon. To be honest, I was disappointed to find that I didn't feel an instant buzz or alertness, in fact, I felt no effects whatsoever. After 15 minutes, I switched the thing off although there was more than half the liquid left in the tube.

I fail to see what all the fuss is about and although I'm glad I tried it I'll be sticking to traditional methods in future.

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