Collecting rare whisky is big business. What was until recently an esoteric niche populated by a small group of enthusiasts has become a global phenomenon, with a multi-million-dollar auction market and collectors competing fiercely for the most sought-after bottles.
As anyone familiar with the fine wine auction scene will know, it isn’t long before such a buoyant market attracts the unscrupulous – but there is nothing new about fake whisky, with some bogus bottles having been around for several decades.
Perhaps the most infamous era came in the 1990s and early 2000s, when a stream of bottles from the late 19th and early 20th centuries emerged, mostly from Italy. There were famous names – Macallan, Bowmore, Laphroaig – and other, almost mythical, distilleries that had long since closed down. Most, it turned out, were entirely bogus.
Nor do fakes necessarily go away once they have been exposed. When news emerged of a Chinese businessman paying US$10,000 for a glass of Macallan 1878 at a Swiss hotel in 2017, experienced collectors called foul, recognising the bottle as a well-known Italian fake. The hotel refunded the guest in full.
That Macallan bottle was a ‘unicorn’ – a bottle that never existed in genuine form – and this type of fake, along with replicas of genuine bottles, tends to hog the headlines. But they’re not the most insidious part of the problem, according to Isabel Graham-Yooll, auction and private client director at Whisky.Auction.
‘There’s a lot of press around those kinds of fakes because they’re a big story, but the most likely thing to stumble upon is something that’s been refilled,’ she says. These can be hard to spot, if there are no obvious signs of tampering with the closure: everything on the outside might be genuine, but instead of rare single malt, the bottle contains a cheap blend – or even cold tea.
How big is the problem? In 2019, whisky analyst and broker Rare Whisky 101 estimated that £41m-worth of fakes were circulating on the rare whisky scene. RW101 director, Andy Simpson, reckons not much has changed since then, but others have questioned the study’s findings and methodology.
‘From our experience, the prevalence of fake bottlings on the secondary market isn’t getting significantly worse than before,’ says Joe Wilson, head of auction content at online auction site Whisky Auctioneer. ‘Having said this, they do exist, and it’s important that auction houses are proactive and knowledgeable on the issue to stop such bottles making their way to market.’
Auction houses employ a number of methods to ensure authenticity, including close inspection of bottles, research into provenance and consulting distillery archives. Scientific analysis – of the bottle and/or the liquid – can also help.
But some fakes can and always will get through, so it’s wise to arm yourself with as much information as possible before going into rare whisky collecting in a big way. Here, with the assistance of Rare Whisky 101, Whisky.Auction and Whisky Auctioneer, are 10 top tips.
Whisky collecting: Dos and don’ts
1. Go to the professionals:
You wouldn’t buy a bottle of rare whisky from the bloke in the pub, so why trust people on peer-to-peer auction sites or social media selling pages? Most auctioneers are highly professional outfits with years of experience of spotting and dealing with fakes. Use them.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask:
Before you buy from an auction house, find out about their anti-forgery policy. Will they take responsibility if a bottle turns out to be a fake? Will they give you your money back?
3. Compare and contrast:
Spotting fakes takes experience, but you can still do some research of your own. Compare your potential purchase with genuine images online: does everything – bottle, capsule, labels, colour of liquid – match? Don’t forget, though, that packaging can change over time.
4. Inspect the closure:
If a bottle’s tamper-proof closure has been damaged, you have no guarantee of what’s inside. It could be the real thing; it could be cold tea. Is the capsule loose-fitting and easily removed? Same rule applies.
5. Check the provenance:
Every bottle has a story, and finding out about it can help prove authenticity. If something doesn’t add up, investigate further – or walk away.
6. The usual suspects:
Collectors often have a ‘black list’ of bottles they avoid at auction, for instance because they’re easy to refill without detection. Ask around.
7. If it looks too good to be true:
…then it probably is. Extreme rarity should prompt closer inspection, and/or professional advice. And if something is priced way below its market value, then there’s probably something amiss.
8. Be patient:
Nobody wants to miss out on something special, but don’t rush. With most rare whiskies, another bottle will show up soon enough. If it’s too expensive – or if you have your doubts about it – don’t be tempted.
9. Be humble:
Never assume you know it all, because we all know what pride precedes. New collectors are often too cautious to get swindled, but the ones who think they’re experts can drop their guard.
10. Just walk away:
Collecting whisky is a very expensive hobby. There are many reasons to NOT buy a bottle: because the price is too high, or if something doesn’t look right. Never be frightened of walking away.