Welcome to the latest despatch in our Big Debate series on Fake News and Fake Whisky!  This week, we’re delighted to welcome Harrison Ormerod of Whisky-Online Auctions to talk about the issues.

Hi Harrison, many thanks for taking the time to share your expertise. I’ll crack on with the questions: Roughly what percentage of the bottles that are sent to your auctions would you say are fake and how robust are your procedures to identify fakes to keep them out of the auction?

We don’t necessarily have a number on this, but I believe that number would be very small. To put it into perspective, we consign roughly 800-1,200 bottles for auction per month. We hold 12 auctions per year. So for argument’s sake, let’s say we sell 10,000 bottles through our auction a year. I can count on both hands the number of suspicious bottles that come our way per year.

I think it is important to understand our clientele. We’re not technically dealing with traders, resellers or, as they say, flippers. I believe we have a totally unique selling database compared to any other auction. To give you an idea, we’re mainly dealing with sellers who may have inherited a bottle or whisky collection, or in sad cases where the seller has been told they can no longer drink alcohol due to their health. Now, this doesn’t mean we drop our guard and become careless.

We also deal with a lot of ex-distillery workers or sellers who have worked at the likes of Oddbins etc. where they often have the original receipts. It is worth mentioning we collect a very high proportion of the whiskies from sellers’ houses. This is a huge part of our due diligence. If we ever come across a suspicious bottle we don’t hesitate to hold it back until we have determined its provenance.

 

Can you briefly tell us about the main different types of fakes?

I hate the word ‘fake’. I think it is thrown around repeatedly, generally with no substance. In terms of whisky, you can split the word Fake in half and there is a big difference between the two:

Counterfeit – I would describe a counterfeit as being where someone has fabricated elements of the bottle. Such as labels, seals, bottles, and so on.

Refill – A refill is simply where the liquid has been replaced. Everything else with the bottle is the real deal.

  1. A counterfeit. For example this Ardbeg 30-year-old.
    Let’s forget about the tax strip and the filling level as these are no way to determine authenticity. But they should be considered when multiple things don’t add up.What was worrying about this example was the glass bottle and the label. Although the glass bottle was a close match, it was different from any I had to compare. The label was the major concern. I’m no print expert but there is no sharpness to the text, nor is there any definition. This is exaggerated with the smaller text. The gold border is too thick and again has no sharpness. And last, but no means least, the corners of the label are guillotine sharp. A schoolboy error and an outright “FAKE”. I doubt this is the first time one of these Ardbeg 30s have turned up, but I thought it would be interesting to give an idea of what we come across.
  1. A refill. Here is a classic example of a Macallan refill we’ve had for some years now. The glass bottle, labels and seal are all the real deal. In this case, it is quite clear that the foil seal has been manipulated off and the liquid has been swapped – you can see the thick steady head that will comfortably sit there for several minutes.
    The type of seal on a particular bottle determines how well it can be covered up. I think refills are going to become a major problem in the future, as they’re harder to notice. It is frustrating when producers (mainly independent bottlers) seal their bottles with cheap plastic shrink-wrap. I don’t like discussing this topic online, but these hacks are already widely known. It is now down to the producers to get their acts together and do something about it; not only to protect the secondary market, but to protect themselves.

 

Presumably most fakes are older / more valuable bottles. Are you seeing any bottles under, say, £100-£200 ever being faked?

From memory, we’ve only come across a Glengoyne 17yo, probably a £50 bottle in auction. The seal was a plain plastic shrink-wrap and the label was on skewiff. We’ve not ruled it out as an outright counterfeit but there are certainly questions that need answering. Whatever it is, it’s sat on a shelf waiting to be opened on a rainy day out of curiosity.

 

What are your main ‘red flags’ when examining bottles suspected of being fakes?

I think I’ve covered this one already – in a nutshell, it is down to experience and knowledge. Knowing what to look out for on certain bottles is helpful. If in doubt, I ask friends or if it is too good to be true, the majority of the time it is.

 

In Rare Whisky 101’s press release they estimated that there could be £41 million of fake whisky in the market and in existing collections.  Would you agree with that figure?

I don’t believe anyone should agree or disagree with this until Rare Whisky 101 have explained how they have come to this conclusion. I think it is an ambitious statement and it is interesting to hear that they agree to explain everything*. From my point of view, these assumptions are going to come back and bite them in the arse, because I just don’t see how it is possible for them to explain. Knowing how many bottles are on the market is not impossible to work out. But they’re assuming they know what and how many bottles are in private collections.

 

Do you think your clients are worried about fakes in the market?  Do you think that lazy or irresponsible journalism like the coverage of the RW101 press release has an effect on your business?

It has to have had some effect on the whole industry, let alone our clients. We do have a very educated audience and from conversations I’ve had, they do not favour Rare Whisky 101.

You could say Rare Whisky 101 is lazy altogether and they’re desperate to make a name for themselves. They’re propagating the idea that they are the authority on whisky and undermining a lot of well-respected veterans. What they have done doesn’t make sense and I find it bewildering how on one hand they are saying auctions sell fakes and on the other hand, publish data bigging the market up shouting from the rooftops how good an investment it is. Their whole database is flawed if they’re saying X amount of whisky on the market is fake as this is where they’re collecting their data from. An absolute insult to anyone who knows the whisky industry.

This scandal is damaging to the whole whisky industry and was a pointless exercise Rare Whisky 101 did for self-promotion. I respect The Whisky Lounge for calling these guys out and I look forward to hearing how Rare Whisky 101 arrived at their conclusion.

Thanks for having me.

Harrison Ormerod, Whisky-Online Auctions.

*Update: Rare Whisky 101 initially agreed to take part in our Big Debate to defend their press release.  They have now said that they will respond on their own website. We will of course report on their response as soon as it is published.