Trust is central to any brand building a loyal following and one of the greatest dangers to this is the rise of counterfeit whiskey. While no one appreciates being duped, this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, Irish whiskey has suffered as much as any product from fakes and frauds. During the Prohibition era in America many organised crime gangs and disreputable producers presented their own ‘rotgut’ whiskey as the highly prized Irish spirit! This did untold damage to the reputation of Irish whiskey and helped contribute to it’s downfall and disappointingly helped usher in the long period of ennui that followed.
The online auction market in particular has been rife with fakes – bottles of scotch selling at well over £100,000 have been found through carbon dating to be high quality fakes. Some counterfeiters are deliberately targeting highly collectible, older bottles of whiskey from the turn of the century, including marquee names like Laphraoig and McCallan. The secondary market (online auctions etc) is worth around £12 million in the UK alone and it can certainly be a trap for the unwary. A quick study of the Rothwell and Atlas documentary, ‘Sour Grapes’ about counterfeiting in the world of wine will reveal exactly what can happen and how extensive the problem can become. The Scotch whisky association for example is usually fighting around 70 legal cases worldwide at any one time for counterfeit Scotch.
In nations like Thailand where the whiskey market is expanding massively and one of the biggest markets for Irish and Scotch whiskies, it’s estimated that around 12 million litres of counterfeit spirit infiltrate the market every year! In a country where 76% of alcohol consumed is spirits this is hardly surprising. The fact that only around 500,000 litres per year is being disovered is somewhat less encouraging.
The most pernicious effects of counterfeiting and those which are most likely to affect the average consumer like you and me who aren’t purchasing £100,000 bottles will be seen where cheap blended whiskey is mixed with a touch of the real thing and passed off as legitimate. Even if the buyer knows better though, they could at least pass it off to others that they’re drinking one of those well known brands, especially in developing markets where whiskey has become a massive status symbol. Interestingly, counterfeit whisky doesn’t just stay in its country of origin, flooding the local market with fakes. It is routinely exported and sold in Europe and other marketplaces, either with knockoff packaging, or as cheap off-label brands found in supermarkets.
So, how does one protect oneself? Well if you’re forking out big money for a bottle it’s essential you know the provenance of the bottle and try to ensure it hasn’t somehow just materialised from the great beyond. Other than having a master distiller or a team of chemists on-hand, it can be almost impossible to spot a fake – well until now that is. A helpful group of German researchers have come up with a system of fluorescent dyes which can be used to identify a spirit. The dyes will change colour depending on the molecular make up of the liquid. The team were able to classify whiskies in this manner based on country of origin, blend or single malt, age and taste (rich or light). While the system can’t definitively identify a whiskey it can certainly be used to compare one against a known sample.
It’s clear that the industry is not simply letting it happen and they are fighting back but it always pays to be alert as a consumer or collector to the potential counterfeit spirits that harm both the consumer and the quality of the market as a whole. The best advice is to be wary, especially when travelling, and keep an eye out for fake looking labels and misspellings. One thing the counterfeit market confirms is that if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then the whiskey industry has a great many admirers.
Try to remember ‘the 4 Ps’: Place, Price, Packaging and Product.
- Place: Make sure you buy from a reputable supermarket, off license or shop.
- Price: If a deal looks too good to be true, it most probably is.
- Packaging: Look for poor quality labeling, which includes things like spelling mistakes. Spirits in bottles 35cl or larger and 30% ABV or higher have to have a duty stamp, which indicates that tax has either been paid or is due to be paid on the contents of the bottle. They’re usually incorporated into the label or stuck on the glass. If it’s not there, it’s illegal. If the seal is broken, don’t drink it.
Fake bar codes. If you have an app on your mobile that scans bar codes, scan it and see if it’s listed as the correct product.
- Product: Look out for fake versions of well-known brands and be wary of unusual brand names you haven’t seen before. Vodka, the most commonly counterfeited spirit, shouldn’t have any white particles or sediment in the bottle. If you see this, the vodka could have been diluted with tap water. If any alcohol tastes or smells bad, don’t drink it. Particularly look out for the smell of nail varnish.