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Watering Down
In ten years in this dump, I've come to accept a very low standard of life. But even at the bottom of this fish tank, a man must have standards. The pathetic trou du cul down at Worley Winery has started putting water to his terrible wine... water!!!
— Pierre Gobbi, BioShock

Diluting an alcoholic beverage (or some other drug), usually with water for alcohol, but sometimes other substances, is fairly common in both the real world and fiction. Street drugs are also almost always cut with other stuff. It is usually done so as to get more product from smaller amounts of genuine ingredients, yet sometimes used for other purposes.

This can overlap with Expensive Glass Of Crap when the watering down consists of mixing small amounts of good booze with larger quantities of mediocre or crap booze.

See also A Tankard of Moose Urine.

Examples:

Anime & Manga
  • This is discussed in Silver Spoon, when Yugo asks one of the staff of Ooezo about a way to make money. He replies that an easy way for a dairy farmer to increase profits is by watering down their milk, which gets mixed in with others from nearby farms, so no one will notice at the store. He then goes on to explain how they're checked for this by weight and freezing point, which you can bypass by either adding too little for them to detect or figuring out which days they measure.
    Man: If you're willing to commit fraud, then you can raise your profits.
    Yugo: Umm... that seems—
    Man:: If you even think about it, I will kill you!

Comic Books
  • In Preacher, Custer starts off his massive "The Reason You Suck" Speech to the whole town by telling the bartender he can almost taste the beer through all the water.
  • In some versions of the Batman franchise, the Penguin has shifted from outright crime to running a nightclub, where he makes far more money selling overpriced souvenirs and, yes, watered-down drinks.

Film
  • In American Psycho, a couple of the yuppies complain about how the cocaine they've been sold is "a gram of fucking Nutrasweet".
  • In the film version of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End, the ghost of the late Rawlinson Bulldog Gums takes possesssion of his now-stuffed body, and urinates through the floor of the upstairs corridor into Sir Henry's drink in the dining hall below. Sir Henry is horrified the stuffed dog's bladder had been refilled with water. This watering-down is what prompts Henry to finally exorcise the ghost of his brother who put the dog up to it.

Literature
  • Examples from Discworld:
    • A certain class of upper-class snobs like to label their alcohol backwards (so that whiskey is read as "yeksihw" and port as "trop") to prevent their servants from stealing sips from the bottles. In response, the butlers top the bottles up with "eniru" after they've had their fill
    • Scrape is a troll drug that's even worse than Slab, as it involves any junk lying around and requires pigeon droppings. And Discworld pigeons are described as "effluents on wings"...
    • But a suggestion that a landlord has been watering down the scumble is quickly discarded, because everyone knows "what happens if you lets a drop of water touch scumble".
  • The book M.Y.T.H. Inc. In Action features Mob enforcer Guido discussing this phenomena, noting it's a way for the bar owner to make more money off less product, and his customers don't mind because less alcohol per glass makes the drink "healthier".
  • One of the minor characters in the Philip K. Dick novel Eye in the Sky is a hostess at a club who waters down her own alcoholic drinks (as a large amount of her job is drinking with customers) so as to not get drunk herself.
  • Lana Lee, the business-minded owner of the Night of Joy bar in A Confederacy of Dunces also waters down the drinks of her "hostess" Darlene...but she also waters down all the other drinks as a cost-cutting measure. Burma Jones frequently comments on it—particularly how it might be cutting into her profits, as people won't come back to a bar where they get too-weak drinks.
  • In the extended version of Steven King's The Stand, one of the survivors of Captain Tripps is a heroin user who knew where his dealer kept the stash. Unfortunately for him, the dealer died before he could cut it, so the druggie snorted almost pure heroin and promptly died of an overdose.
  • Guy Gavriel Kay's The Sarantine Mosaic, being Historical Fantasy based on Byzantine (eastern Roman Empire) events, has most people watering their wine regularly in Sarantine society. Taking one's wine undiluted is considered a sign of a dissolute drunkard - reasonable, given how much wine everyone seems to drink throughout the day.

Live-Action TV
  • Due to its heavy focus on drug gangs, The Wire features the drug version of this trope in spades. (Eg. numbers are thrown around between the gangs to talk about the strength of their product; 'Take it to ten' or 'This stuff is ninety', referring to what percentage of the product is actually the drug), and in hard times, they weaken their product by cutting it with whatever similar-looking substance comes to hand to make more profit. In season two, there are five deaths and eight hospitalizations in the Correctional Facility because the supply of heroin has been cut with rat poison. In this case it was for the sake of assassination, but the police couldn't be sure because that kind of thing can just as well be done as a way to cut cost and increase perceived potency.
  • The Beverly Hillbillies' Granny, a Hillbilly Moonshiner, usually makes strong liquor, but waters it down for the city folks who couldn't handle it at full strength.
  • Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad originally spiked his meth with chili powder, not so much to dilute as because he considered it his signature flair. When he joined up with Walter White he put a stop to that, because Walt takes great pride in the fact that he can produce meth that is more than 99% pure. The high quality of Walt's meth is what brings him to Gus's attention.
    "Chili powder. Did I not tell you how moronic that was?"
  • Rosie does this on M*A*S*H to keep the prices down.
    Rosie: Keeps prices from getting high.
    BJ: Has the same effect on the customers.
  • On Graceland the agents are able to intercept a large heroin shipment that was supposed to sustain Bello's drug operations for months. With his inventory running out, Bello decides that he has to dilute the heroin so he does not run out before a replacement shipment can arrive. Since he does not want to gain a reputation for watering down his product, he uses a substitute that most junkies would not detect but which can kill people if mixed with alcohol or other drugs. In Bello's arithmetic, a few dead customers is better than having a reputation for selling inferior heroin.

Music
  • The The Pogues track "Sally MacLenanne brings this up as part of a barman's job.
    I played the pump, and took the hump, and watered whiskey down

Religion
  • Watered-down wine is used as a metaphor in the Book of Isaiah in The Bible as God's way of telling His people Israel that their spiritual life isn't as pure or as potent as it used to be.

Video Games
  • In BioShock, minor character Pierre Gobbi has an audio diary complaining about the hellhole Rapture is turning out to be; but there is one thing he cannot stand: Worley Winery, producers of the fine wine Arcadia Merlot, watering down their wine. They then claim that at least they are using distilled water, and not seawater.

Webcomics
  • In Lackadaisy their supplier at the beginning of the comic has a not undeserved reputation for cutting his booze with embalming fluid. The fact that they're even buying from him serves to show how badly the Lackadaisy speakeasy is doing.

Western Animation

Real Life
  • Truth in Television to a massive degree. While alcohol with a little bit of water is often forgivable, Scare 'Em Straight Drugs Are Bad presentations like pointing out how dealers cut marijuana and other drugs with everything from carpet strands to hair. Even camel shit. One would think that dried plants (you know, the thing pot is) would be more plausible, but then, plausibility doesn't scare anyone.
    • Ironically, this is exactly why it's legal in the Netherlands. The government can't do quality control on illegal stuff, after all.
    • The same line of thinking is a major argument legalization proponents the US use, too. (Along with the argument that incarceration for pot use causes way more social ills than pot use itself.)
  • As mentioned by one of the examples above "hostesses" and "hosts" who work in bars or nightclubs to draw in patrons almost always have their own drinks severely watered down to allow them to not get too soused given the job requires them to drink along with the guests.
    • This is also commonly done by unscrupulous bartenders who have particularly profitable customers who also happen to be drunk and approaching the point of being overserved; what they usually do is take cocktails with non-alcoholic ingredients that overpower the taste of the alcohol to begin with and drastically reduce the amount of alcoholic components. This is particularly easy with fruity cocktails (colloquially known as "bitch drinks"), and it is virtually foolproof if the bartender is careful to keep the amount of alcohol negligible. This is because people who are already drunk cannot detect whether a drink contains alcohol or not, and if they do make a fuss about drink strength, they'll look like any other belligerent drunk who needs to be carted out by the bouncers.
  • During Prohibition in the United States, illegal alcohol was often cut with methyl alcohol, a poison that can cause permanent blindness.
    • This was also done DELIBERATELY by the government to prevent industrial alcohol from getting consumed. This worked as well as you might expect: not. Contemporary comments to this were: "The government is under no obligation to furnish the people with alcohol that is drinkable, when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this alcohol is a deliberate suicide." and "If the Senator's theory is that alcohol is so poisonous, then why put poison in it?" (the second quote is not a response to the first one).
  • The British Royal Navy served "grog" to its sailors. You could call it watered-down rum, but it's more like rummed-up water, and the main point was that the alcohol would keep the water drinkable. This was also done to moderate the sailors' drinking. The daily ration wasn't enough to get really soused anyway, but issuing it watered down discouraged sailors from hoarding up their rations and going on a bender.
    • More importantly grog was often also cut with lime juice, originally to improve the taste but later found to help fight off scurvy. Eventually, officers in the India service drinking the stuff (though officers were allowed wine, they started to take the lime-grog for the antiscorbutic effect) started to add sugar, tea, and sometimes other fruit juices, and thus punch was born.
    • Another Royal Navy trick was to cut ground coffee beans with bread that had been toasted black then crumbled. This was done deliberately to make the beans - and their precious caffeine - last longer. By the end of a voyage it was not uncommon for naval coffee to consist entirely of water and burnt bread.
  • Rationing in World War II led to this — in more ways than one. During the siege of Leningrad, the food situation got so precarious that the Soviets started issuing bread filled out with sawdust, and the Germans themselves would later give the foodstuff to POWs, impressed foreign workers and concentration camp internees.
  • More Truth In Television, and perhaps an inversion: A very minute portion of alcohol was always added to water in ancient societies to make it safe(r) to drink. (Even the Apostle Paul, otherwise rather famous for being an ascetic, recommends this in a letter to Timothy because the other had been having stomach problems.)
  • This was done with milk and even bread depressingly often. (Milk would be mixed with water, bread with chalk, plaster, grit and worse...) There's an incredible amount of legislation on this in older legal systems, often putting it on the same severity scale as theft and murder (this was the original rationale behind "the Baker's Dozen", during Medieval England, the punishment for shortchanging customers on bread was amputation of the hand, bakers compensated by erring on the side of caution and selling 13 loaves of bread for the price of 12). Because, well, it kind of is murder to sell someone "food" with the nutritional value of cardboard.
    • The Nestle boycott of the 1970's was partially related to the risks of watering down powdered infant formula.
      • In 2008, producers of baby milk powder was found to be adding poisonous melamine (a chemical used to fool food quality tests, allowing them to dilute the powder with non-nutritious material without being caught). It lead to 60 000 babies being hospitalized. Two people were executed for their roles in the tragedy.
    • This is such an ancient problem that Islam, particularly the Hadith, have very strong words for milk merchants who water down their product, calling them cheats of the lowest order, etc., etc., etc.
  • Apparently, according to the Talmud, in ancient Israel and Babylonia, wine was made so strong that it was actually undrinkable unless mixed with water in a ratio of about 2 parts water to 1 part wine.
    • In much of the ancient Mediterranean wine was fermented to a very high alcohol level and then watered down later, either soon before sale or by the customer. It was considered very unhealthy to regularly imbibe un-watered-down wine.
      • For a good reason- alcohol and sweetness of unwatered vine perfectly covered bitter taste of poison.
  • And as for good old fashioned watering down beer? The trick isn't to water it down with water. That gets spotted. Instead, you water down expensive beers with cheap beer.
  • Watering wine was a very important skill for bartenders in ancient Greece and Rome - you started strong and then began diluting as the customers got drunker and less able to notice. There's a famous bit of graffiti in Pompeii that assaults a caupon for watering his drinks too much.
    • This is actually in The Bible even; when Jesus performed his first miracle, he didn't turn water into any old wine, he turned it into the very best wine, and one of the guests passes comment about it to the host, since the usual practice was to not just water it down but trot out a cheaper wine overall.
    • There was also at least one recipe that called for mixing wine, with pitch, rosin (a type of resin derived from pine trees) and seawater. It was considered an acquired taste.
      • A form of this still exists as the Greek retsina.
    • Note also that the Greeks in particular considered drinking undiluted wine a sign of uncouthness (or alcoholism—pretty much the same thing). Even if you liked your wine strong, you were supposed to mix it with some water.
  • Averted with Janis Joplin. Apparently, she was just one of several people killed by a dealer who failed to cut his batch of heroin enough to make it "safe".
    • This is a very common reason for a drug-related deaths actually. As established dealers try to capitalize on their status, they tend to progressively dilute their ware with various adulterants, forcing their clients to buy a larger and larger amounts of drug for the same kick. And when a new dealer moves in and tries to compete by selling a stronger, more pure stuff, the users very often use the dosage they got used to with the old, diluted drug for the new, more pure one, leading to overdose.
  • On a lighter note, diluting alcohol with sodas or fruit juices to make larger, less alcoholic beverages is one of the staples of modern bartending. From a purely economic perspective, this benefits more or less everyone: the weaker drinks make cheap liquor sippable, reducing the cost of drinking to the consumer, and buying cheaper liquor allows bars to serve more customers. Even liquor connoisseurs benefit, since premium, high-quality spirits are usually available in the bar but must be ordered by name, leaving them to those who know them by name and presumably will not adulterate them with soft drinks.note 
  • On an even lighter note, it is common for parties/school functions/other large events to tip the proportions of water to Kool-Aid (or other) drink mix in order to have enough.
  • In 2013, the State of New Jersey ran a sting operation called "Operation Swill" that revealed no less than 29 establishments statewide (of which 13 were TGI Friday's locations) passing off cheaper brands as premium liquor. On its own, that's Expensive Glass Of Crap, but sometimes the bars would mix a bit of the real thing in for some reason; and since most of these places were not so much bars as restaurants with liquor licenses, the vast majority of drinks ordered there would be mixed—perfect for disguising the fact that you used crap liquor instead of the real thing.


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