Continued Proliferation of Fakes

Refills, Replicas and Relics

With values at record highs for many desirable bottles of rare whisky, we continue to witness increased numbers of fake bottles hitting the market.

The vast majority of the UK’s dedicated and knowledgeable whisky auctioneers are consistently policing the market where they have ‘eyes-on’ and can identify rogue sellers and/or bottles.

It is impossible to place an estimate on the value of fake bottles/liquid in the broader market. However, what we can say with 100% certainty is we are observing an increasing number of fakes across all value segments.

During 2016, we acquired a bottle of “1903 Laphroaig” and undertook a series of forensic and analytical investigations to prove its authenticity. We assessed the glass, the label, the capsule, the cork and ultimately the liquid and have proven, beyond any reasonable doubt it is not the genuine article.


Refills

Bottles which are easily refilled, re-sealed and re-sold. These can be exceptionally hard to spot without opening, as everything about the bottle is genuine - other than the liquid! Refills are bottles that have been opened and refilled with an alternative liquid, then the original capsule has been carefully re-applied.

The bottle, label, cork stopper and even the closure are 100% authentic with only the liquid in one bottle being fake (colour-matched cold tea). Impossible to spot without opening. We have recently noticed in a 40 year old Dalmore that the capsule had been carefully sliced open at the back, bottle contents refilled (with lighter liquid) and the capsule re-sealed and bottle placed at auction.


Replicas

These tend to be the many classic fakes we have seen over the years, where the labels are reproductions of the genuine article. These can be easier to spot as labels often look ‘wrong’, especially where metallic text/bronzing/ detailing is hard to apply without using expensive printing equipment. Replicas are bottles where the fakers have tried to reproduce the labels – neck, shoulder, front and back – and often they get very close to perfection and the unsuspecting auctioneer and their buyers may not spot these issues. The Macallan is the classic replicated brand, but with prices where they are, why would it not be?

The first image above shows a classic fake 30-year-old. There is no way the brand would allow a label of this quality to be released. A genuine bottle is currently worth around £3,500 at auction, so the rewards for this criminal activity can be substantial.


Relics

Antique/ancient, very old looking bottles. We recently had sight of a list of exceptionally old/rare bottles in the ‘Relics’ category where, out of 499 bottles, we suspected 486 to be fake. The few, which could be genuine, were more recent releases, so stood a chance of being real. If these old bottles were authentic, we estimate they would carry a minimum approximate value of around £10,000 per bottle (some would certainly be far more individually), so around £5million in total. If an inexperienced buyer thought these were the real deal and took them through a private sale, someone could easily be duped out of a significant amount of money. Given that the whole auction market in the UK is worth some £14m, to find a collection of fakes worth £5m is clearly concerning.

Our investigations in to this class of fakes led us to acquire a Laphroaig purported to be from 1903. We assessed the glass and labels and were satisfied the "packaging" was of its era. But what of the liquid - we decided to open and assess the liquid and were disappointed to find (both organoleptically and via technical analysis) that it was a young blended scotch, no phenols (weird if its was Laphroaig) and had it carbon dated to confirm it was distilled in very recent times.

Carbon dating report

Technical analysis report


So what steps can be taken to prevent the unsuspecting buyer acquiring a fake?

  1. Never buy rare or collectable bottles through an online peer-to-peer auction (e.g. where a seller lists their own bottle(s) and sells direct to a buyer and there are no ‘eye’s on’ auctioneers to look at the physical bottles which is the first back-stop). The vast majority of online/traditional auctioneers take fakes very seriously and, given the growing competition in the marketplace, understand that reputation is critical.
  2. If it looks too good to be true then it really is. If something is clearly sitting below its market value, there is something wrong. In the current buoyant market for rare whisky, genuine bottles sell for what they are worth. Do not be tempted by that seemingly amazing bargain.
  3. Sounds obvious but don’t buy ANYTHING from ‘the bloke in a pub’! We’re hearing (anecdotally at the moment) about an increase in fake valuable bottles being sold/ bought like this.
  4. We’ve offered advice and guidance on fakes to our customers for a great many years and we have a list of bottles NEVER to buy at auction, no matter how good they look. Certain bottles are particularly susceptible to being refilled with virtually no exterior signs of tampering. The aforementioned Ardbeg Very Young is on that list.
  5. Be wary of deceased relatives! Said a little tongue in cheek, and we do value/sell a great many collections from deceased estates, but it is surprising, and somewhat saddening, how many times we’ve heard this - “my {add relative – usually uncle} sadly passed away recently and, to our great surprise, in the loft, hidden away, we found a bottle/bottles of {add the name of any well-known distillery or distillery closed in the 1800s or early 1900s} dated from {add any date in the mid/late 1800’s}. How much would you buy it for?”. When we delve a little deeper, and start asking basic questions about provenance, the trail usually goes cold. When we are dealing in old and rare bottles, we insist on physically inspecting each and every bottle.
  6. Carbon dating - It is a fairly expensive process (c£600 per test) and requires a sample of liquid, but this can be removed with a hypodermic needle, so need not wholly compromise a bottle’s integrity. Equally a bottle with proved age would be worth far more to a collector, so the process could arguably add value. Any potential buyer of particularly old bottles should ask the vendor to carbon date the liquid. Over the years, we’ve done this a number of times with old bottles of Scotch and also other reportedly old spirits. The process has been immensely useful, to the degree we recently wanted to buy a significant tranche of old bottles (non-Scotch) as the liquid was of very high quality. Upon carbon dating, we rapidly extricated ourselves from progressing the purchase. What was meant to be from the early 1900s turned out to be from the 1980s! Although the analysis will not identify an exact year it will give an estimate of when the living matter (barley or grape) stopped living and thus its Carbon 14 isotope was fixed.
  7. Do your research – If the intent is to spend a relatively large amount on a bottle, make sure it looks like it should. A quick online search usually throws up many images of genuine bottles; buyers should make sure their target bottle looks the same. Is the capsule the same, is the bottle shape the same, is the liquid the same colour (sometimes hard to tell with simple photos), is the label the same - front and back, is the packaging or box the same, and so on. It sounds basic, but it is surprising how many people have been caught out when closer inspection would have clearly revealed inconsistencies.
  8. If consumers/drinkers want to take it one step further, then purchasing a portable alcohol meter could be considered. They’re not without cost (c£1,000 per meter) but ours has been invaluable to our clients and us over the years. It’s accurate to +/-0.2% ABV, so is more than accurate enough to reveal when something is at 40% when it should be 43% etc. Clearly a bottle needs to be open to test it, but it confirms, without question or doubt, when bottles are fake. Just before Christmas we were looking at an old bottle suspected of being fake but not confirmed. It was reported to be at 46% alcohol by volume on the label – we tested it and it came out at 33.8%. The fill level (the amount of spirit in the bottle) was good, so alcohol evaporation could not be the cause.

It is not just Scotch that is being targeted by the fakers.

We have recently seen fake Japanese whisky and we have seen fake bottles of the now legendary (and exceptionally expensive) Hanyu Cards series. With recent increases in values being so rapid, we have absolutely no doubt we’ll see more fake high-end Japanese bottles appear on the market. As other Scotch distilleries become increasingly popular and the liquid more valuable, we’re starting to see suspected fakes from the likes of GlenDronach and others. It is not just top end, high value bottles we’re seeing, but lower value, easily re-filled bottles also pose a threat.

In the current market where rarities are appreciating in value, the incidence of fakes will increase – anyone (auctioneer, brand owner or collector) who says otherwise is fooling themselves. The key thing for buyers is to not be averse to simply walking away. No matter how much a bottle is needed to complete a collection or is reported to be the best liquid in the world, if anything looks even slightly wrong about it then leave well alone. One of our customers recently said of the subject of fakes, and his words sum it up perfectly:

“If it smells fishy to me… it’s usually fish – not Scotch!”.



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