Welcome to The Whisky Lounge’s first Big Debate! This is the start of a series of themed discussions we’re going to have on the pages of this blog, and we’re kicking off with one of the most contentious hot potatoes: Fake News!

To begin, let me introduce a recent example of problematic whisky news which caused weary sighs and dramatic eyerolls throughout the industry.  

A few days before Christmas the whisky investment brokers Rare Whisky 101 announced that they had tested 55 bottles of rare whisky and found that 21 of them were fake.  They also made the startling statement that they believed that £41m of fake whisky existed in the secondary market and in private collections. The statement was picked up by news channels around the world, yet was presented entirely uncritically, with no analysis or questioning of Rare Whisky’s methodology by the journalists who made the reports.  This led to headlines such as ‘Rare Whisky Market Dominated By Fakes, Testing Shows’.

Quite aside from the lazy extrapolations of the journalists, one has to wonder about Rare Whisky 101’s motives in this case.  It could be speculated that as whisky brokers they might have an interest in temporarily driving down the prices of the rarest bottles of whisky so that they could buy them themselves – and that by creating doubt about whisky auctions (while simultaneously setting themselves up as the ultimate authority on rare bottles) they can create a demand for their own services.  In addition, by performing carbon dating (presumably quite an expensive process for the clients, especially with ‘consultancy’ fees on top) they could market the bottles they are selling as ‘proven’ to be genuine…

No-one disputes that fake whisky bottles do exist – but making the kind of press statements that provoke hysterical press coverage is irresponsible. What’s the point of carbon-testing bottles like the 1885 Ardbeg that featured prominently in the press reports? This Ardbeg is a famous fake of long standing – which RW101 must have known.  It was bought from a private individual – not at auction – yet it’s the auctions that have suffered from the aspersions cast at the secondary market. Still, the headline ‘Known Fake Whisky Tested, Is Fake’ probably wouldn’t get quite the same level of publicity for Rare Whisky 101…

Ardbeg 1885: Yes, that font is Times New Roman – no carbon dating required.

To pick known fakes for this experiment and to use the results to suggest that up to a third of whiskies in the secondary market could be fake is very cynical and must be extremely galling for the many reputable auctioneers who spend a great deal of effort examining all the bottles they receive for the very purpose of weeding out any fakes before their auctions begin. With the thousands of whiskies auctioned every month, the occasional fake might slip through the net – but I believe at least 99.9% of the whiskies sold at auction in the UK are 100% genuine.

Rare Whisky 101 have agreed to take part in our debate – we’d like them to explain how they arrived at the figure of £41m of fake whisky in the market.  We also ask them to provide us with the full list of bottles tested in their experiment to demonstrate how random their sample was, and a list of examples of bottles from UK retailers or recent auctions that they are convinced are fake. As they claim there’s so many fakes around, this should be very easy for them to do.  Watch this space…