Welcome back to the latest in our Big Debate series on Fake News and Fake Whisky! This week we have Angus MacRaild, the highly absorbent freelance writer (formerly of Mulberry Bank Auctions and Whisky-Online Auctions) on how to spot a pastiche fake like the ‘Ardbeg 1885’ above that Rare Whisky 101 featured prominently in their fake whisky press release.
Sadly, the fuss around the disingenuous Rare Whisky 101 ‘fake bottles’ press release and the subsequent mass exercise in journalistic lethargy that followed once again raised the spectre of these ridiculous bottles. There was a similar fuss not long ago when a dram of ‘1878 Macallan’ was sold in Switzerland in 2017. So, let’s see if we can skewer this old Count Quackula through the heart once and for all here.
Yes, the bottles are old. Very old. It’s almost as if, in the 1980s when old whisky was generally cheap and of extremely niche interest, such things as old empty glass bottles could be purchased for a pittance if you could be bothered to go and seek them out at flea markets…
“But the paper is old!” I hear some of you cry… OMG, it’s almost as if someone deliberately used old paper! I’d better go have a lie down. However, when inventing these labels the Italian fakers also decided to use identical aesthetic techniques on numerous bottles that purport to be from wildly different brands/eras. Here’s some of the things to look out for:
- Crimping the labels’ edges is a common feature with these fakes – but was scarcely ever used in genuine bottlings from this time. Then there’s the way they added deliberate distressing and artificial ageing to the labels. Perhaps most amusing though, are the label details themselves.
- Adding vintages and bottling dates – not unheard of on very old bottlings but not at all common to the degree these bottlings would have it.
- The aesthetic styles of the artwork. Lavish, garish old fonts and Victoriana sat alongside weird art deco nonsense and fonts that were drawn in the 1980s. A good example is the font ‘Caxton Book’ which was created in 1981. It appears on Lagavulin 1909, Longrow 1864 and Port Ellen 1891, to name but a few.
In fact, you can have quite a lot of fun with an online font checker. Upload some of these old label images and see what you can find. Times Standard Roman on an imaginatively titled ‘Ardbeg Very Rare’ is one of my favourites so far.
Here is where it gets clever. These bottles were created by Italian whisky nerds – not for nefarious reasons, but as pastiche bottles for swapping and, arguably, harmless collectorly amusement. Old foil was used and distressed to appear older. Various brand stamps were cleverly moulded into the foil.
However, as with the labels, there were also a couple of identical patterns used across numerous bottles purporting to be from different brands, distilleries, eras etc. The similarities in these old inventions – the material of the foil, the technique of deliberate distress and artificial ageing, the adhesives used and the stamps – are remarkable, and cannot remotely be coincidental.
From a sample selection of these older inventions, the following bottles share an identical pattern stamp on the top of the capsule: Row & Co Macallans 22yo, 28yo & 30yo (I’ve opened the 22yo: definite fake). R Kemp 1872 Macallan (a notorious fake which was key to the infamously amusing official ‘Replica’ series scandal). The ‘1927 MacFarlane Macallan’ also uses the same capsule stamp with the same foil – supposedly over 50 years later. An engraved bottle claiming to be ‘Mutter’s Bowmore’ also features the same capsule.
Then there’s Glen Grants purporting to be from 1888 and 1903 – different colours of the same foil, identical pattern stamp. Another Glen Grant ‘distilled 1898’ has the same foil, the same pattern, and also amusingly has a ‘75cl’ on the label – around 35 years before such information was stated on whisky bottles, and 60+ years before the transition to metric bottle measurements in the UK. You’ll also find the same capsule stamp on a ‘Mackie’s 1903 Laphroaig’ and an ‘1887 Peter Thomson Talisker’ amongst others.
I’ll also add that if you open one of these old duds you’ll immediately see that the capsule foil is modern – the glue beneath and the outward distressing stand out like a giraffe in a trench coat. Which leads me to…
This bit you can only really tell once you open one of these comedy nonsense bottles. I’ve opened about fifteen of them in my time. On each and every occasion, it was the same story: modern cork, artificially aged by being soaked in some old sweet wine. The liquid inside, meanwhile, is always some sort of weird, blended, slightly sherried, slightly peated malt.
Having opened and tasted a considerable number of bottles of authentic Scotch whisky (malts and blends) from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I can tell you with 100% confidence: These fakes bear zero resemblance to whisky styles from this era. Neither outwardly or inwardly.
Genuine bottles have heavy, lead foil. Their foil markings are either non existent, or distinctive and specific. The foil, once removed, hides a layer of dust which is ancient adhesive, crystallised by time. These fakes, meanwhile, reveal some kind of still-gelatinous 1980s Uhu abomination.
Genuine ancient bottles from the 1920s and earlier tended to use driven corks – like wine corks. When aged for multiple decades these corks shrivel, harden and wither at the tip in a manner that is impossible to accurately recreate with a puddle of supermarket port and an old Chianti cork. Most very old driven corks also bear printed branding – something absent from every old dud I’ve opened.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. These old invented whiskies are just that: Inventions. Fakes. Nonsense. They should be an amusing and charming footnote from the early days of contemporary whisky fascination. Instead they have become – through the actions of nefarious charlatans – problematic, unnecessarily debated, and used for fraudulent profiteering by snake-oil salesmen.
Even today, websites such as Finest & Rarest in Germany (amongst others) list these proven fakes as for sale or ‘sold’. Macallan still display some of them without critique in their bottle museum [Although they have reluctantly removed several – Ed.]. It’s important to call this out and say that any legitimising of these bottles is harmful, it hurts whisky, it hurts people who work in whisky’s rapidly growing secondary market – and it wastes people’s time.
These fakes are not representative of the wider and more pressing issue of counterfeit bottles and refills. They are not difficult to spot. They are anomalies, relics of a more innocent and funny time. And, perhaps most importantly, they are the very epitome of ornamental, Bell’s decanter-esque, sub-car boot sale, shite naffness. Can we please wise up and consign them to the dustbin of history where they belong?