Whisky Fakes – Collecting advice #3
Now we are getting into the swing of things, those of you who have been reading my blog will realise that I have a collection of whisky. Before you decide to descend on my house for a party, let me save you the cost of travel; it’s in storage well away from the house. I just don’t want to be tempted to drink some of it.
This next article should be of importance to all of you who drink and enjoy a good whisky, and aren’t afraid to pay for it. It also should be essential reading for those of you thinking of expanding their collection, especially with high demand or high value bottles. I’ll keep it brief but you really need to be aware of the facts.
The ‘F-word’ we have to deal with is one that will fill anybody who has paid a pretty penny for a bottle with dread – FAKE.
This is a subject an old work colleague and I were discussing over a drink after bumping into each other at Aberdeen Airport this New Year’s Eve. I was aware of fakes and was pretty sure of the items I had were safe. However I decided to do a bit more research and was a bit horrified at what I found.
It is unfortunate that once something becomes popular, expensive or both that the unscrupulous amongst the human race will start to make fakes. This goes from anything from kids toys, clothes and fashion, tools and dutiable goods like tobacco and drink. And whisky falls into this category. Fake whisky can have dramatic negative effects to our bank balances and our health.
Before the mass demand of whisky we have now, products like this have always been faked. In Europe, quite a lot of whiskies were faked by the Mafia. But now that the demand is continuing to grow, and older whisky stocks are going down, prices are going up, and this fuels the fakes market.
YOU NEED TO PROTECT YOURSELF.
And here is how to do it.
1/ Know what your bottle should look like.
Research what the label should look like. Check the seal is intact. Confirm the capsule is the correct colour. Check the liquid inside is the correct colour. Is it even in the correct bottle? Be aware of the correct bottle shape and size, and any embossed patterns. Remember, that distilleries do occasionally change bottle shape. Bruichladdich used to be in tall bottles but now in more dumpy ones. Just be sure the bottle is appropriate for the age of the whisky.
2/ Check the label
Compare to a known original bottle or a bottle from the same distillery. Check for incorrect spelling and that the volume and abv are stated. Be aware that some older, cheaper whiskies don’t always state volume or strength – it may depend on export market. Proceed with caution. Another give away is does the bottle state the correct region? Knowledge is needed here as although it’s a Speyside Malt, Macallan state it’s a Highland Malt on the labels. Here’s a tip – all Speyside whiskies can also be classed as Highland, but not all Highland whiskies are Speysiders. Another whisky that calls itself a Highland malt but is also Speyside is Dalwhinnie.
Are the labels too clean for an aged bottle? Another giveaway. Check the paper type, and how it is attached to the bottle. Is there any gold or metallic coloured lettering – check it is a foil and not just printed on.
3/ Above all else, check the seal!
Give the seal a very close inspection. Check for tampering, check the capsule is the right colour, and isn’t loose. Some Ardbeg, including the collectible ones have very poor capsules, which can be removed. Check the capsule hasn’t been secured in a way that was not by the bottler.
4/ Check the fill level and colour of the liquid.
Already mentioned in step one, but give it more of a check. If the fill level is higher than normal, or higher than an average bottle of the same age, alarm bells should be ringing. This can be difficult in coloured glass or impossible in the case of ceramic decanters.
5/ If possible, buy directly from a retailer.
The chances of a fake whisky being sold by trusted retailer are small. If buying a bottle on the secondary market from a retailer, closely examine the bottle. Look for all the above and be satisfied before you part with the cash. If you want to be totally sure, research batch codes, and see if the bottle you want to buy has an appropriate code. For higher price items, the seller will probably be happy enough to let you check before you buy, as you may be buying a bottle worth hundreds or thousands of pounds.
6/ Exercise care using auctions
Auctions are the place where you need to be most wary, especially if buying expensive bottles. If it’s an online auction, feel free to go to the auction house and request to see it if it is a massively expensive bottle. All online auction houses I deal with are happy enough to send extra photos to you by email or to discuss the bottle in question.
While buying from an auction means that somebody has had an experienced eye over look it, they might miss some of the fakes. Once you receive your bottle, give it a good check over and notify the auction house immediately if you have reasonable doubt as to authenticity. The auction house will not want a reputation for selling improper goods. You may also have a form of come-back and retrieve your money.
If you keep your bottles in the free storage often offered by the auctioneers, this may limit your comeback if it is a fake. By time you collect, the seller of the fake has their money, and it will be almost impossible to retrieve. You may well get money back from the auction house, but don’t expect it to be easy.
7/ Private sales.
Unless you fully trust the person you are dealing with, I recommend to avoid this method of purchase. Once you have bought your bottle and found out it is fake, your cash is long gone.
If you are considering purchasing this way, insist on being able to check on the bottle and packaging. Ask for receipts. Anybody with high value bottles will keep the receipts, or genuine bills of sale / orders. If they cannot supply this, walk away.
Do not purchase on eBay. You have no comeback. Buying alcohol on eBay in the UK is forbidden anyway – HMRC cracked down on that years ago.
If the price being asked is too low, ask why. It could be that
⁃ they are desperate for money
⁃ It’s fake
⁃ It’s stolen
⁃ It’s damaged
⁃ They don’t know what it’s worth
⁃ They’re not greedy. This is possible but as many people think old or rare whisky has the value of a brand new Porsche 911, this isn’t that common unless you are in a genuine whisky circle.
I’ve been offered a bottle of Macallan Genesis for £250. This was at the time they were being auctioned for £4000+. As it was a workmate, I couldn’t do it to him, knowing they were released for £495. I also had my suspicions over the bottle. While I have no doubt about my work colleagues story about him buying it off a guy in Peterhead, it was obvious the bottle had a dodgy past or the guy was desperate.
Needless to say when I told my colleague of the real value, I made his day.
8/ Not all fakes are high value spirits
Don’t assume it’s only collectible or expensive bottles that get faked. I’ve learnt of cheaper Glenmorangie (£50-£70) being faked. While this may not be that worthwhile, as profits will be low; if demand is higher, it will be more worthwhile.
And I leave the most important point to last.
If you have purchased a bottle that is fake, you are taking a big gamble with your health. You do not know what is in that bottle. There may be something as harmless as cold tea or food colouring. There may also be a lower quality whisky in there. Mind you, even if it is Bells, that’s maybe not going to kill you. But there could also be industrial alcohol such as methanol in the bottle. This will blind you, in as little as twelve hours and cause massive damage to your central nervous system. Once ingested, Methanol forms Formaldehyde and Formic acid. You do not want this inside you.
I can testify to the horrible experience of Formaldehyde. It is used as a preservative in beer, most notably in Africa. As I have to work there on a regular basis, I try only to drink imported beer and never drink any spirits. You don’t know what you are getting. Plus, Formaldehyde gives you a cracker of a hangover.
What can we do to help to stem the spread of fakes?
Firstly, use the knowledge I have given you to buy smart. If there is no demand, the faking rate will drop. Remember, if it is too good to be true, it is.
Secondly, do not sell your empty bottles. Keep them if you wish, but otherwise smash them and recycle. Forgers often refill bottles and these are harder to spot, as the bottle and label are genuine. Same goes for your stoppers. Keep a selection of sizes in case you have a broken cork, but otherwise destroy these too.
People often buy these bottles to make cool lamps out of, but this is not hard to do yourself. You never know if you are selling your bottle to a forger.
If you are ever selling, consider using an auction house to sell. You might have to pay 10% of the hammer price in auction fees, but if your bottle sells, it’s an no hassle sale. Or go through a broker. Companies like Rare Whisky 101 are highly reputable and have a list of clients looking to buy collections or certain bottles.
Whenever you buy a bottle, keep a copy of the receipt. Photocopy it if it’s a till receipt as many thermal print receipts fade after time rendering them useless. Other buyers will be wary of fakes too, and will be seeking provenance on high value bottles. I have to admit, I don’t have every receipt, but the ones I don’t have were low value gifts or bought from a reputable seller and I do have every confidence in the bottles.
Have I bought a fake? I’d like to think not, but I have one bottle in my collection I bought at auction I have my suspicions over. It’s a Gilbeys Spey Royal from the 1950s. It was purchased at auction when I went to hoover up something that had a low price on it. I was thinking of drinking it but had second thoughts.
Seeing as I only paid £35 I’m not that worried, and it will be a good ornament. It has no volume or ABV stated, but having researched online, this seems to be almost normal for a bottle of this age, and I have seen similar bottles with the same. Further research with the auctioneer gave me some knowledge I previously didn’t know, and it turns out that the bottle is different as it is a Portuguese import, and that is the type of bottle that was stipulated which differs from the original bottle. This isn’t a unique issue – in the past the iconic square bottles of Johnnie Walker were rejected by Portugal in a similar period, so a different (round) bottle was used. As for the abv and volume missing from the label, this wasn’t required on UK bottles until the 70’s, so would only be added if the country importing it requested it. But still, I’m not going to take a chance and it will remain unopened.
So I’ll keep my health and drink to yours with something a bit more classy!
If you feel this info was useful, please share with others to help stop the scourge of counterfeit whisky.
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