Tests on 55 ‘rare’ Scotch whiskies have revealed more than a third to be fakes, prompting concern about the scale of counterfeiting in the secondary market.
Twenty-one ‘rare’ Scotch whiskies out of 55 tested over a period of more than nine months were either ‘outright fakes’ or not distilled in the year declared on the label, according to analysis by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC).
If genuine, the 21 whiskies would have a combined value of £635,000, said Rare Whisky 101, a valuation and consultancy service that acquired the bottles via the secondary market and commissioned the lab tests – which used radiocarbon dating.
Whiskies have risen to prominence in auctions and on the secondary market in general in recent years, but this has heightened concerns about counterfeiting. It’s an issue that will resonate with many fine wine collectors.
‘Fake whisky [is] now infiltrating every major route to market for rare whisky,’ said Rare Whisky 101, adding that the tests suggest there could be as much as £41 million-worth of rare whisky on the secondary market and in private collections that is counterfeit.
There appeared to be a particular problem with whiskies claiming to pre-date 1900, after tests by SUERC showed all of these samples to be fakes. These included an Ardbeg 1885, acquired by Rare Whisky 101 from an unnamed private owner.
‘We are clearly disappointed to discover that, without exception, every single “antique” pre-1900 distilled whisky RW101 have had analysed over the last two years has proven to be fake,’ said David Robertson, Rare Whisky 101 co-founder.
Assume the worst
‘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,’ said Robertson.
Fellow co-founder Andy Simpson added that it was inevitable that ‘rogue elements’ would try to capitalise on the market’s growth and that all buyers should request proof of authenticity.
He said, ‘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.’
How the testing was done
Radiocarbon dating, also known as carbon-14 dating, is linked to analysis of radiocarbon levels within a particular product or organism.
SUERC described the process as an ‘evolving science’ but said that it could be used to decipher when a whisky was distilled.
The atmosphere produces radiocarbon continuously and small amounts are absorbed by living organisms, including barley that is used for whisky.
However, there have been man-made changes to radiocarbon levels in the atmosphere; notably a reduction following the advent of the industrial era but also a significant increase during the period of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests in the 1950s.
SUERC said that it could date a whisky within a range of two to three years for anything distilled after the 1950s, although there was a broader range for older whiskies.
Professor Gordon Cook, head of the SUERC Radiocarbon Laboratory, said that he considered this method the ‘gold standard’ for identifying the age of a whisky.
He added, ‘We have had significant help from the major distillers who provided whisky samples of known age that allowed us to start this work.’