Last year, a record 58,758 bottles of whisky went under the hammer in the UK – around a third more than in 2015 – and the market’s value grew by 50 per cent to an unprecedented £14.2m. For buyers and sellers of collectable whisky, such figures are cause for celebration – and for caution, because it’s only when a market gets interesting like this that counterfeiting becomes a problem. As I write, news has broken of the arrest of a Londoner suspected of faking whisky potentially worth thousands of pounds.
One company that’s been highlighting the growing problem of counterfeit malts is Rare Whisky 101, the brokerage and market analysts behind the industry’s definitive index on whisky investment. It recently published the results of an attempt to authenticate a bottle of Laphroaig 1903 with an estimated value of £100,000. It had been touted as the oldest existing Laphroaig in the world, but the duo smelled a rat and embarked on six months of forensic testing before concluding that it was almost certainly a blend distilled some time between 2007 and 2009. Ordinary in the extreme.
It makes chilling reading if you’re one of the thousands of whisky lovers who bid for a rare malt last year. So how best to minimise the risk? Whether you’re a first-time buyer or not, stick to an auctioneer with expertise in the field: McTear’s, Whisky Auction, Scotch Whisky Auctions or Bonhams. They will usually weed out the worst offenders. In fact, it was the suspicions of the experts at Whisky Auction that led to the arrest of the alleged counterfeiter mentioned above.
Next, do your research – popular fakes include Macallan, Bowmore and Glenlivet, but I’ve heard reports of Japanese whiskies such as Hanyu being counterfeited too. Rare Whisky 101 often names and shames fakes on its blog and gives clients a list of whiskies never to buy. “But it’s not just top-end, high-value bottles we’re seeing,” says co-founder Andy Simpson. “Increasingly, lower-value, easily refilled bottles also pose a threat.” Peer-to-peer auctions – where buyers sell to each other without an expert – are a definite no-no, he adds. “And it may sound obvious, but don’t buy anything from a bloke in the pub!”
Counterfeiting in whisky is still some way off the levels seen in fine wine, where fakes are said to account for as much as 20 per cent of all lots sold at auction. But with the top 1,000 malts now delivering an average return of 15-25 per cent, the problem of fraud is only set to increase. “So don’t be tempted by that seemingly amazing bargain,” says Simpson. “If it looks too good to be true, then it almost certainly is.”