Spirits Fraud with Tobias Gorn

By: Tobias Gorn

Journey through the fakes & counterfeits of the whisky industry.

The blooming of the secondary spirit market, and rise of online specialist Whisky auction houses have lead to a natural and indeed very real emergence of the age old issue with individual products that can be traded for a significant premium: fakes, counterfeits and stolen goods. There are more fabricated fakes, counterfeits and illegal refills at large than ever before. It is a growing problem which requires a structured, systematic approach and a professional solution within different sectors of the industry.  These sectors must unite in order to combat the counterfeiters, regardless of whether they have committed a minor or major fraud.  These criminals may have merely refilled one old bottle of discontinued Scotch Single Malt Whisky or they may have produced thousands of fabricated XO Cognac bottle containing potentially hazardous methanol based liquids.

Unfortunately, authenticating and inspecting spirit bottles is not as easy as initially considered. More often than not, the Authenticator requires a genuine control sample and a catalogue of information on the specific bottling in question. It is a good start to have an abundant collection of old vintage bottles and modern classics however it is incredibly costly to analyse all of these, not to mention very difficult. Big collectors can help this ongoing battle by allowing access to experts to use their collection as reference bottles when applicable.

Authentication is occasionally simpler with top wines than spirits, depending on what exactly is being inspected. The top collectable wines have better recorded history available in most cases than what’s available for some spirits. Some historic bottlings are harder to trace but there are some outstanding experts out there being able to use some pretty impressive scientific methods to make sure the criminals not having an easy life.

The biggest risk and responsibility resting on the shoulders of experts and Authenticators is not to make errors and false judgements.  Without hard facts, and with only speculation as a guide, an Authenticator is at risk of seconding guessing, and hence falsely identifying a bottle or liquid.  This will inevitably lead to upset clients.  This reinforces the necessity for clear research leading to hard facts.

There are some highly respectable professionals within the Spirits industry working on methods to identify fakes, some of whom have gone into great detail, and have been researching some fascinating cases including carbon dating and other scientific methods. However it is rare to have the fortune and luxury to access the actual liquid itself to send it to the lab. Cases with old historic whiskies however worth the tiny loss of liquid in order to gain a confident expert opinion and proven authenticity.

The work of the Authenticators is not to do with the joy of tasting old vintage whiskies or other spirits but ultimately based on thorough historic and production background research and time consuming forensic inspection of the submitted cases. On the other hand it is sometimes fun and very entertaining with some “really!?” moments when one finds a hand fabricated box for an older bottle of a famous 25 years old Speyside whisky or a capsule forced over a screwcap trying to recreate a more expensive line from the same producer. Some of the attempts are indeed funny and makes the Authenticator wonder if they are made by morons or geniuses trying to keep the secondary whisky market entertained. On a more serious notes, the above was on a live auction not so long ago, that’s when it gets a bit more serious and sad.

We’re fortunate to embark on a great journey in the form of a working research project combining tested wine authenticating protocols, forensic methods and contact with many prominent experts of the spirit industry.

Our research so far has identified that there are at least three major groups of counterfeit bottles throughout all spirit categories, from high volume well-known entry level blends to highly sought after one-off collectable examples from distilleries long gone. There will to be a detailed explanation of the research so far in our next article. Coming soon we’ll be talking about fascinating things including how some producers encourage their brand ambassadors to destroy their empty bottles, obvious fakes and hilarious copies of big brands. We will cover plenty of fun elements with entertaining examples of fakes gone wrong along the serious and ever growing problem of fighting illegal counterfeiters who can be linked to serious organised crime.