November 2017: A Chinese businessman on holiday in Switzerland decided to treat himself to the ultimate Scotch whisky — a dram of the legendary Macallan 1878. (A dram is not much — 0.0625 of an ounce.)
For this gulp of liquid gold, the gentleman paid the Swiss franc equivalent of just over $10,000.
The hotel bar that sold him the drink photographed the momentous occasion. Media around the world reported it as the most expensive dram ever poured.
The bottle belonged to the hotel owner’s father and had been sitting on the bar shelf for 25 years or so.
The photos caught the attention of a British whisky expert, who studied the bottle in the photos and noticed a few details amiss. He called the hotel, which then sent a sample of the whisky to Oxford University for testing.
The tests showed it to be circa 1970–72, not 1878…
And it was a cheap blend, not a single malt.
The story has a happy ending for the man who shelled out for the bogus dram. The hotel owner promptly flew to China to personally apologize and refund the man’s money.
However, the bottle couldn’t be traced, as the owner’s father couldn’t remember where he bought it.
This is one of the better-known stories of whisky fraud, which has been a growing problem since the 1990s. That’s about the time whisky auctions took off thanks to the internet.
Another highly publicized incident occurred earlier that same year, when British police busted a London man running a large-scale, sophisticated fake whisky bottling operation in his home.
He had been reported by a director from the online auction platform Whisky.Auction, who grew suspicious at the number of bottles he was putting up for sale on the site.
Had he managed to sell them, he might have been on the road to becoming the whisky world’s version of Rudy Kurniawan.
The Edinburgh-based Scotch Whisky Association, which promotes and protects the Scotch whisky industry, reports it has around 60–70 open investigations of fraudulent whisky around the world at any given time.
Meanwhile, in America, illegal trade thrives on sites like Craigslist and eBay, as U.S. law prohibits the sale of whisky by anyone other than licensed distributors.
States take this offense very seriously. Folks have actually been prosecuted for selling fake whisky online in places such as Pennsylvania and New York.
Fraud is something to watch out for when investing in whisky, there’s no doubt about it. The owners of online auction house and valuation expert company Rare Whisky 101 say there’s about $54 million in fake whisky floating around — on the secondary market and in private collections.
The biggest problem seems to be products dated before 1900. Rare Whisky 101 goes so far as to warn buyers they should automatically assume any whisky of that vintage is fake.
Don’t become another unfortunate fraud story. If you buy older whisky, know who you’re buying from. And make sure to have it tested by a trusted third party to verify its authenticity before purchasing.
To your wealth,
Editor-at-large, Unconventional Wealth
Steffi Baker is the editor-at-large of Unconventional Wealth. For the past 10 years, she worked with a small strategy consulting firm that dealt exclusively with wealth-management companies, helping them market themselves to ultra-high-net-worth clients.
Through this line of work, Steffi attended events in London and New York and hobnobbed with household names and international...