The summer before last, a young Chinese millionaire ordered a dram at a hotel bar in the high-end Swiss resort of St Moritz, paying the equivalent of £7,600 for a single measure. An absurd price for any whisky you might think, though it was an 1878 Macallan. Pictures of the bottle were posted online, but within a week doubts were raised over its authenticity. Months later, after it had been carbon-dated at Oxford University and tested in the lab of whisky analysis consultants Tatlock & Thomson’s, the evidence was compelling. The dram was not an ancient single malt but nothing more than a blend from the early 1970s.
IT’LL NEVER HAPPEN TO ME
Whisky fakes are in the news. The St Moritz bottle received huge coverage, as did the follow-up story in December when the analyst and broker Rare Whisky 101, who helped expose the counterfeit Macallan, sent 55 bottles for carbon-dating.
The firm’s co-founder, Andy Simpson, announced that 21 had failed the test. ‘Third of rare Scotch whiskies tested found to be fake’, declared the BBC. “Within minutes it had been that had been misinterpreted into ‘a third of whisky is fake’,” says Andy. “Absolute nonsense.”
Obviously, you can’t extrapolate from such a small sample, any more than you could ever know the true scale of fakes churning through the auction houses, sitting in collections or already drunk. As Serena Sutcliffe, head of Sotheby’s wine department, once said: “The vast majority of fake wines are happily enjoyed.” And yet Andy claims to have seen £6.6 million-worth of fake whisky in the past three years and says: “Some people happily bury their heads in the sand and say, ‘It’s never going to happen to me’.”
In this game, it seems you ignore the old moral of ‘caveat emptor’ – let the buyer beware – at your peril.
THE NUCLEAR OPTION
The ability to carbon-date whisky is thanks to the Cold War era of nuclear testing in the 1950s, which caused a surge in levels of a radioactive form of carbon (carbon-14) in the atmosphere which declined after the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in 1963.
The level of carbon-14 absorbed by living matter – for example the barley used in whisky or grapes in wine – can pinpoint the date of distillation to within two or three years if it was produced after 1955, when higher levels of carbon-14 are present. For samples from before the 1950s, carbon dating provides a wider range of dates.
As Professor Gordon Cook, deputy director of The Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) which tested those 55 bottles, explains: “A lot of the whiskies we looked at were purporting to be from the late 19th century or even earlier, and right away we can say they’re fake because they’ve got bomb radio carbon in them.”
Was he surprised by the number of fakes? “No, not particularly – the labels were too pristine in many cases,” he replies. “The ones we looked at as being genuine you just have a feel for – the labels are a bit scrappy and the bottles a bit tatty.”
FRAUD OR ‘SOFISTICAZIONE’
Whisky writer and consultant Angus MacRaild questions the value of such tests, and says: “I’ve never seen a bottle where the only way to determine the truth is through carbon-dating.” The St Moritz bottle is a case in point, with its suspiciously clean label and mention of ‘Macallan and Talisker Distilleries Ltd’, when no records of such a company exist. In his view, being able to examine the label, capsule, glass, contents and story of the whisky is enough.
But of course he does have specialist knowledge, and he’s talking of one aspect of fakes whereby the fraudster concocts the label and whisky from scratch to mimic a bottling that may never have existed. A wave of such bottles splashed onto the market in the 1990s, including the 100 ‘antique’ Macallans bought by the distillery from auctions and private clients between 2000 and 2002. Every one of them was fake and the source was reportedly Italy, where adulteration is called sofisticazione as opposed to that rather more blunt Anglo-Saxon word – ‘fraud’. The St Moritz bottle and those tested by Rare Whisky 101 were probably from the same pool.
“What’s much more difficult to spot, and much more of a problem for the whole secondary market, is refills and re-labelling,” says Angus. During the 1970s and 80s, Gordon & MacPhail sent pallet-loads of Macallan to Italy, often with spare labels as well. Add in the use of simple capsules and standard bottles, and it seems no-one was really bothered with counterfeit. Then again, a recently unearthed Gordon & MacPhail price list explains why. In 1972 single malts were offered at £3.50, rising to an eye-popping £4.54 for a 37-year-old Macallan!
DRINK IT, DON’T FLIP IT
The web is awash with empties, and a recent trawl by Andy Simpson found four highly collectible Macallan bottles in just 10 minutes. Whoever buys them is presumably thinking more of auctions than bottle banks. Auctioneers should scrutinise bottles and ask probing questions, but some are only dreaming of juicy commissions and getting that hammer down fast.
Angus MacRaild believes the online specialists are usually better, while the traditional houses rely on their name and reputation. If someone queries a bottle on a catalogue, “often it will just disappear, without a word,” he says.
This happened recently to an SMWS whisky which was withdrawn from auction after a member alerted the Society. Kai Ivalo, the Society’s spirits director, had been asked for verification, but clearly he can only verify bottles that are bought direct. Like Andy Simpson and Angus MacRaild, he has yet to hear of a fake SMWS bottle, but admits it could be only a matter of time.
“At the moment there does seem to be a naivety, born out of the whole excitement around the secondary market in whisky,” he says. “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. We bottle the stuff for members to enjoy and drink, not to flip at auction.”
Follow that advice and the Society will remain free from fakes.
This feature is from the August 2019 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit www.smws.com/whisky-club-membership