A Scottish lab tested 55 bottles: Over a third of those whiskies didn’t pass.

By Mike Pomranz
December 20, 2018
Leon Harris/Getty Images

There’s a reason a cashier will check the authenticity of a hundred dollar bill but let your singles slide without a batting an eye: As things become more valuable, they’re more lucrative to counterfeit and more is at stake for those who deal in them. So while the Scotch whisky market has continued to boom — breaking record after record throughout 2018 — new research has revealed a potentially unsettling reality: a large percentage of those Scotches might be fake.

Scottish whisky broker Rare Whisky 101 had samples from 55 bottles of rare Scotch tested by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) using advanced radiocarbon dating techniques to determine their age, the BBC reports. In the end, 21 of those samples — or over a third of them — were determined to be different than what the label purported.

On the secondary market, those 21 whiskies were estimated to be worth over $800,000 — assuming they were legitimate. And extrapolating those numbers further, Rare Whiskey 101 believes that about $52 million worth of fake “rare” whisky is currently floating around the secondary market, be it in auctions, at retail, or held in private collections.

The worst performers in these tests were whiskey said to be produced from 1900 or earlier. Every single one of these bottles failed the carbon dating tests. “It is our genuine belief that every purported pre-1900 — and in many cases much later — bottle should be assumed fake until proven genuine, certainly if the bottle claims to be a single malt Scotch whisky,” David Robertson, co-founder of Rare Whisky 101, was quoted as saying. “This problem will only grow as prices for rare bottles continue to increase.”

“The exploding demand for rare whisky is inevitably attracting rogue elements to the sector,” Andy Simpson, another Rare Whisky 101 co-founder, added. “While we know that the vast majority of rare whisky vendors aren’t knowingly selling fake whisky to unsuspecting buyers, we would implore auction houses, retailers, brand owners and buyers to refrain from selling or purchasing any pre-1900 distilled Scotch whisky unless it has a professional certificate of distillation year/vintage by a carbon dating laboratory.”

Of course, with such alarming results, there’s an instinct to question the testing itself. But Gordon Cook, head of the SUERC Radiocarbon Laboratory, defended their methods. “We have had significant help from the major distillers who provided whisky samples of known age that allowed us to start this work,” he stated. “However, it has been our collaboration with Rare Whisky 101 and their provision of really old and rare whiskies that has allowed us to really push this work forward to what we consider to be the Gold Standard technique for identifying the age of a whisky. It is disappointing to see the large percentage of vintage whiskies that turn out to be fake. However, we have developed a very powerful technique to beat the fraudsters and I’d advise anyone thinking about selling what they consider to be an early product to have it analyzed.” Granted, when put that way, the whole thing sounds a bit like an advertisement for the SUERC Radiocarbon Laboratory. But then again, if you’re planning to throw down as much as a million dollars on a bottle of Scotch, it probably does make sense to leave a bit of money in your budget for some testing, right?

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