The explosion in values for rare whiskies such as Brora, Macallan and Karuizawa in the last few years has seen an commensurate increase in the number of counterfeits coming onto the market. Lauren Eads looks at this growing problem of fake whisky and examines how you can protect yourself when buying old bottles.
In 2018, it was claimed that £41 million worth of the world’s collectible whisky was fake. That’s more than the total value of bottles of single malt Scotch sold at auction in the UK that year (£40.8m – a figure forecasted to have swelled to £75m in 2021). The claims were made by whisky brokerage and consultancy firm Rare Whisky 101 following sample testing of 55 bottles (many from the 1900s or earlier) by Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre. Laboratory tests found that 21 were fakes – that’s 38%. The results would have led even the most optimistic observer to deduce that there must be a lot of fake whisky swilling about the secondary market, and sadly they’d be right. Four years on, is the problem getting worse?
Beware old Macallan
It’s impossible to give a fully accurate picture, but what’s clear is that as the value of Scotch continues to rise, so do the risks to consumers. “It is a big problem these days but it’s heavily dependent on what you buy,” says Angus MacRaild, drinks writer and founder of the popular blog, Whisky Sponge, and an independent bottler. “If you’re buying expensive Macallan it is a nightmare. If you’re buying more obscure, unusual older bottlings, or more recent releases from more left field distilleries then it’s less of an issue. But as whisky as a product and culture grows in popularity and value, inevitably so does the issue of counterfeits and refills.”
In 2017 it emerged that a bottle of Macallan 1878 Scotch whisky, of which a Chinese tourist paid £8,000 for single dram at the Waldhaus Hotel Am See in St Moritz, Switzerland, was in fact fake. This followed another bust that saw Rare 101 uncover a fake bottle of Laphroaig 1903, worth around £100,000, and two fake part-sets of Macallan Fine and Rare, worth an estimated £750,000. The Laphroaig had been believed to be the oldest in existence, but a six-month investigation and carbon dating found that the bottle had in fact been distilled between 2007 and 2009. Then of course there was the spate of (ultimately fake) bottles that emerged out of Italy in the 1990s, with 19th and early 20th century bottles of The Macallan and Talisker appearing somewhat endlessly on the secondary market. “[These bottles] fooled many people, even distillers like Edrington who created these Macallan ‘replica’ series from these bottles,” adds MacRaild. “Nowadays, any serious old and rare whisky enthusiast or expert should be able to spot these bottles straight away and know the story inside out. However, some of these old duds do still slip through the net and fool people.”
How is the industry is fighting back?
Carbon dating is one of the most effective methods for testing the authenticity of a bottle of whisky. But it’s expensive at around £600 per test and it requires a sample of the liquid. Though on balance clearly worth it when talking about high value bottles. It works by determining when the living matter (grain) stopped living and therefore when its carbon 14 isotope was fixed, allowing for an estimate on age to be reached. Closure technology is another area of innovation. “I think the more widely that holographic, tamper-proof capsules are embraced the better,” says MacRaild. “The work around physical closures is probably some of the most useful that can be done in deterring counterfeiters. But of course as technology disperses [counterfeiters] will find ways around this in time, so it’ll be about constantly reviewing the situation and being willing to embrace new solutions when necessary.”
One of the most novel developments has been the emergence of an electronic “e-nose” this year. The high-tech hooter has been developed by researchers at the University of Technology in Sydney. According to lead researcher, associate professor Steven Su: “Up until now, detecting the differences between whiskies has required either a trained whisky connoisseur, who might still get it wrong, or complex and time-consuming chemical analysis by scientists in a lab. So to have a rapid, easy to use, real-time assessment of whisky to identify the quality, and uncover any adulteration or fraud, could be very beneficial for both high-end wholesalers and purchasers.” In the first trial, the e-nose reached 100% accuracy for detecting the region, 96% accuracy of brand name and 92% accuracy of style. The device, designed to mimic the human olfactory system, uses eight gas sensors that can detect certain odours which are processed by a digital algorithm that is gradually trained to recognise whisky characteristics.
What about NFTs?
They might not be second nature to most consumers yet, but the emergence of NFT trading platforms offer a new way to tackle fraud. (Read more about what an NFT is here) The NFT system means that bottles are never allowed to ‘float’ on the open market, but are instead stored in one location until a bottle’s NFT is redeemed. It means that one bottle can be owned by multiple investors, all of whom may have never even set eyes on it. Consumers can buy direct from brands with a full record of ownership held on a digital blockchain. It won’t solve the problem for old bottles, and favours those buying for investment purposes only, but it could be part of the solution. The Dalmore, Dictador Rum and Hennessy have all signed up to sell super rare expressions via NFT platform BlockBar.
How can you protect yourself?
Beware of the three Rs – refills, replicas and relics. Refills are bottles that can be easily refilled with another liquid and re-sold. While the bottle may seem genuine, the liquid is fake and they can be very difficult to spot without opening a bottle. Replicas are classic fakes of bottles known to command interest at auction. These are somewhat cyclical, and one generation’s replicas will shift with the next, but The Macallan is a perennial target. In this case the labels are the giveaway. Look out for poor print quality, mismatched typography or embossing. Relics are old bottles usually purported to be from the 1800s. While there are genuine bottles out there, they are few, and you should be particularly wary of such bottles. Any buyer of a particularly old bottle should ask the retailer to carbon date the liquid. “Be sceptical, ask questions, and try to think logically about it,” adds MacRaild. “If you are buying a £100 old bottle of Tullibardine from the 1970s, what is the likelihood someone went to the time and effort to create a passable refill? If it’s a £2000 old Macallan then that’s a different story.”
Always check the provenance. “Ask the auction houses or the retailer for provenance and history of the bottle. Having this information from good, trustworthy sources is one of the best ways to give a reasonably amount of confidence. If the bottle came from an elderly person in the highlands, it’s likely to be original. If it’s an old Macallan or Samaroli that came from some random collection in Europe with no traceability, then that should be more of a red flag,” MacRaild advises. Never be tempted to buy direct from a lone seller simply listing their bottle online. Go through a reputable auctioneer or retailer, inspect the closure and label carefully and do you research. Check for realistic price comparisons and market value from reliable sources. If a price seems too good to be true, it probably is.