Rare whisky testing
Rare bottles of whisky being tested by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC), a research centre within the University of Glasgow’s College of Science & Engineering.

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Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) tested 55 different bottles of rare Scotch whisky supplied by Rare Whisky 101 (RW101), an online retailer and specialist in whisky.

From these bottles bought by RW101 from different sources through the secondary market, 21 were confirmed as “either outright fakes or whiskies not distilled in the year declared”. The testing found “all malt whisky samples purporting to be from around 1900 or earlier were found to be fake”.

Due to growing concern about the proliferation of fake whisky in the secondary market, RW101 teamed up with the geochemistry experts at SUERC to undertake the study. SUERC is one of four UK Radiocarbon Accelerator Units that can test and analyse whiskies.

David Robertson, co-founder of Rare Whisky 101, said: “We are clearly disappointed to discover that, without exception, every single ‘antique’ pre-1900 distilled whisky RW101 have had analysed over the last two years has proven to be fake. It is our genuine belief that every purported pre-1900 - and in many cases much later - bottle should be assumed fake until proven genuine, certainly if the bottle claims to be a single malt Scotch whisky. This problem will only grow as prices for rare bottles continue to increase.”

RW101 bought the antique bottles through various channels: a private seller, at auction and from a retailer.

Prof Gordon Cook, head of the SUERC Radiocarbon Laboratory, said: “It is disappointing to see the large percentage of vintage whiskies that turn out to be fake. However, we have developed a very powerful technique to beat the fraudsters and I’d advise anyone thinking about selling what they consider to be an early product to have it analysed.

“Recently, we have analysed four bottles of early whisky (including a rye whisky from the US), purported to have been distilled between the mid-19th to the early 20th century, for members of the general public. Of these, three were genuine, so there are really old and rare whiskies in existence.”

Radioactive date signature

The bottles are tested to identify levels of radiocarbon (or C-14) within the liquid. The testing is able to locate minute levels of radiocarbon that were absorbed by the barley as it grew, providing each whisky with its own radioactive date signature. The SUERC scientists have been able to establish that “any whisky with low radiocarbon levels must have been distilled prior to the nuclear era and any whisky with higher levels of radiocarbon must have been distilled after 1955”.

Its latest scientific testing processes allow SUERC to pinpoint likely distillation years to within a two to three-year period after the 1950s.

Rare Whisky 101 forecasted the auction market for rare whisky in the UK to exceed 100,000 bottles during this year, at a value of more than £36m.

Andy Simpson, co-founder of Rare Whisky 101, said: “The exploding demand for rare whisky is inevitably attracting rogue elements to the sector. While we know that the vast majority of rare whisky vendors aren’t knowingly selling fake whisky to unsuspecting buyers, we would implore auction houses, retailers, brand owners and buyers to refrain from selling or purchasing any pre-1900 distilled Scotch whisky unless it has a professional certificate of distillation year/vintage by a carbon-dating laboratory.”

Although the sample is small, RW101 believes it could be representative of the wider market.