There’s always a new fake food scandal breaking somewhere.
Today it is Scotch whisky.
Food fraud is nothing new. As the author of the New York Times bestseller Real Food, Fake Food, Why You Don’t What You’re Eating & What You Can Do About It, very little about food, wine or sprits fraud shocks me anymore. I’ve seen fake champagne, fake collectible wines, fake cheese, fake olive oil, even fake tomatoes. Just last week, the New York State attorney general’s office released reported that despite a Presidential Task Force convened a few years ago expressly to fight the massive fraud in the seafood industry, huge quantities of fish remain illegally mislabeled at retail—with popular and valuable species, the amount that is fake is sometimes more than 90%.
Fake food is not only in our lives, it is prevalent. Since my book came out, I’ve followed this, written on new findings, have been on TV news shows more than 20 times, and frequently field calls from reporters around the world, because there is always anew Fake Food scandal breaking somewhere. Today it is Scotch whisky.
A shocking report found that more than a third of rare and collectible Scotch whiskies in private collections and for sale on the secondary market may be fake. These are the kinds of bottles sold at very specialized high-end retailers and at global auctions, often for four to six figure sums.
Rare Whisky 101 is a whisky valuation service, brokerage and consultancy for whisky connoisseurs, collectors and investors that was launched in Scotland in 2014. The company has tracked every bottle sold at UK auctions over the past 12 years in order to compile what it calls “the world’s first, only and most comprehensive online single malt Scotch & Japanese whisky,” a dataset covering almost 375,000 price records across over 40,000 different labels.
More recently, the company worked with scientists at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) at the University of Glasgow’s College of Science & Engineering. SUERC’s radiocarbon laboratory is one of the longest established and largest radiocarbon dating laboratories on earth, and does everything from testing archaeological samples to analyzing skeletal remains for the police to verifying whiskies and other spirits for the distilled spirits industry, auction houses and private individuals. In short, they know what they are doing. Due to atmospheric radiation since the Cold War, their whisky testing is accurate to within a 2 to 3-year period of distillation for products made since the 1950s, and for samples more than seven decades old, the tests offer a wider band of accuracy.
Rare Whisky 101 teamed up with SUERC to randomly sample a range of 55 different whiskies, bottles that were acquired by RW101 from different sources through the secondary market. Of these 21—nearly 40%—were confirmed to be either outright fakes or whiskies not distilled in the year declared. But it gets worse—the older and more collectible/valuable the whisky was, the faker it was. In fact, every single bottle—100%—of malt whiskies purporting to be from around 1900 or earlier were fake. The 21 imposters would be worth an estimated potentially worth around $804,000 including one bottle worth $190,000. Highlights of the testing include three bottles of rare whisky acquired by the company through three different channels: Ardbeg 1885 from a private owner, a rare Thorne’s Heritage early-20th-century blended whisky purchased at auction and an Ardbeg purported to be bottled in the 1960s bought at retail. All three were found to be fakes.
After more than nine months of testing, the results indicate that the problem of fake rare Scotch whisky in the secondary market is much more prevalent than originally thought, infiltrating all major routes to market for rare and vintage whisky. Based on these results, Rare Whisky 101 estimates that around $52 million worth of rare whisky is currently circulating in the secondary market, and some of what is present in existing collections is fake. That’s a shocking number and the company notes that it represents a value greater than the entire annual UK auction market.
Rare Whisky 101 co-founder David Robertson released a comment on the matter: “We are clearly disappointed to discover that, without exception, every single ‘antique’ pre-1900 distilled whisky RW101 have had analyzed over the last 2 years has proven to be fake. 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. This problem will only grow as prices for rare bottles continue to increase.”
His partner Andy Simpson added, “As we have always stated, each buyer must seek to assure themselves of the authenticity and veracity of any potential acquisition. The exploding demand for rare whisky is inevitably attracting rogue elements to the sector. 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.”
The good news is that there may be a solution to give buyers renewed confidence in the market—and in their existing collections. Professor Gordon Cook, head of the SUERC Radiocarbon Laboratory, acknowledged that the analysis benefited significantly from the assistance of major Scottish distillers who provided samples of known ages to create benchmarks and to create 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. Recently, we have analyzed four bottles of early whisky-including a rye whisky from the U.S.-purported to have been distilled between the mid-19th to the early-20th century, for members of the general public. Of these, three were genuine, so there are really old and rare whiskies in existence.”
The collectible Scotch whisky market is a rarefied and specialized world, but food frauds permeates all aspects of our lives, especially in the U.S., from supermarkets to restaurants at all price points. For much more on this topic and concrete tips on how to beat the fraudsters in your everyday life, read my book, Real Food, Fake Food.