News

What's in a bottle?

Faked single malt whisky has once again been making headlines in recent months,we look at what has been going on
By Rob Allanson
The first questionable bottle was an ‘1856, John McWilliam’ bottling of Macallan which was originally part of the Christie’s New York sale (see issue 69). This bottling was one of the allegedly 19th century bottles of Macallan which were subsequently shown to have been faked.The distiller, which had sold some of its collection before the fakes were discovered (though after doubts had been raised), had invited all the collectors who had bought these bottles to return the bottles and offered to reimburse them all.The Scotch Whisky Review alerted both Christie’s and Macallan of this and though the auction house was initially reluctant to withdraw the bottle, it was eventually persuaded to do so. Whether Christie’s or the distiller will now pursue the collector who knew that the bottle was faked is not clear.The pre-Christmas period also saw another incident, not over a fake but the questionable dating of a bottle given by Glasgow auction house, McTear’s. If true, its dating of a bottle of ‘Mutter Bowmore’ as 1853 would have made this the oldest bottle of single malt ever to have come up for auction.A number of academics, including Professor Michael Moss of Glasgow University (the co-author of The Making of Scotch Whisky and a History of Bowmore), expressed doubts to McTear’s over this date.All felt that the label, bottle, glass and the fact that Mutter only used its trademark from the 1870s onwards pointed to it coming from the end of the 19th century. An old bottle, but not the oldest. McTear’s, however, rejected these worries and the auction proceeded, the bottle selling for close to £30,000 to a Russian collector.The story however refused to die. The doubts over the dating were raised once more. It then transpired that, prior to the sale, Bowmore (which was bidding for the bottle) had asked the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) to take the bottle and run radio-carbon tests on the whisky at an Oxford laboratory.When the SWRI passed on the results to Bowmore (after the sale), a jubilant Martin Green of McTear’s pounced on them as justification for his dating of the bottle. The Oxford lab had been assigned a date of 119 +/- 23BP for the liquid. Radio-carbon dating is calculated from a fixed date ‘Before Present’ [BP], that year being 1950 which was when the effects of atomic bombs could be read in carbon. The SWRI (and Green) had taken the assigned reading to mean 119 calendar years before 1950, plus or minus 23 years. “The radio-carbon results give the date of production as between 1808 and 1854,” wrote Mr Green in The Ileach. Sadly, he and the SWRI had misinterpreted the results.As Prof. Moss (still adamant his dating was correct) discovered from a colleague working in the field the figures showed that the liquid could have been distilled any time between 1638 and 1938.This analysis was confirmed by two other laboratories. So far there has been no comment from McTear’s over why the warnings were ignored and whether the later date would now be accepted as correct.The Mutter incident once again raised the question of the role played by auction houses. This was one of a large number of similar events recently where houses have been warned by experts about either dating, or authenticity. With the exception of Christie’s New York all these warnings have been ignored and despite repeated requests McTear’s has not revealed its methodology for checking the authenticity and provenance of old bottles.Martin Green has however now written to say he is willing to “collaborate with others in the industry in the future”.At the same time, whisky collector, malt maniac and blogger Serge Valentin was getting increasingly concerned with the number of dubious bottles being offered for sale on e- Bay. Like most collectors, Valentin knew that there were faked whiskies being sold on e- Bay, but it was when he was duped into buying a faked bottle of Suntory that he finally cracked.The bottle, it transpired, had been sold (empty) on e-Bay and had now reappeared, filled, complete with a faked Italian tax stamp and new seal.The full saga can be read on www.whiskyfun.com