You have just entered an elegant restaurant with vaulted ceilings, crisp linen tablecloths, and a five-course prix fixe menu. You order a glass of their finest bourbon and wait anxiously for that mouthwatering first sip. The authenticity of your drink is the farthest thing from your mind. Unfortunately, even in this high-brow scenario, you’re not safe from imposter spirits.
“I’ve seen fakes poured at high-end restaurants by famous chefs,” says Los Angeles-based whiskey expert Adam Herz.
Even the fanciest establishments can fall prey to increasingly sophisticated scammers who refill expensive bottles with low-end whiskey and sell it for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Inside Edition Sniffs Out a Phony
Although counterfeiting is a growing problem in the whiskey world, the high-end wine and single-malt Scotch industries have been grappling with it for decades. You may remember reading about Rudy Kurniawan, an expert wine counterfeiter who created fake labels, corks, foils and other materials in his home laboratory in California. Kurniawan, who was both well-connected and well-liked in the wine community, sold millions of dollars of fake Burgundy and Cabernet before being indicted in 2013.
Whiskey fraud is relatively new, fueled by explosive growth in consumption over the past several years and the increasing desperation of scammers looking to make a buck. Much of the rebottled counterfeit whiskey is sold online to unsuspecting individual buyers. However, just like five-star restaurants, experienced alcohol retailers sometimes get duped.
In early 2022, the television series Inside Edition went undercover at New York City’s Acker, which bills itself as America’s oldest wine shop. An undercover reporter paid nearly $1,000 for a bottle of Colonel E.H. Taylor - Four Grain, a rare bourbon produced by Kentucky’s Buffalo Trace Distillery. Although the bottle displayed classic red flags that often signal counterfeit products (missing packaging and labeling details), the clerk insisted the whiskey was genuine. It was not.
After Inside Edition sent the bottle back to Buffalo Trace, testing confirmed that the liquor inside was not the genuine article. It turned out to be a low-quality imposter blend, and Acker refused to take responsibility or shed light on how the bottle had been procured.
Won’t Get Fooled Again
If snazzy restaurants and liquor stores that have been in business since the Missouri Compromise can’t sniff out a fake, what hope is there for the rest of us?
Despite the fact that whiskey experts like Herz report growing sophistication among counterfeiters, whiskey-loving scientists are proving there’s reason for optimism.
To combat the growing scourge of whiskey fraud, Australian researchers created an “e-nose” device that simplifies the testing process for potential dupes. Designed to mimic the human olfactory system, the relatively inexpensive device detects counterfeit whiskies in just a few minutes and can be used outside a laboratory setting.
According to the research team, “a rapid and real-time assessment of whisky quality could prove beneficial to wholesalers and consumers.”
While it may be a few years before your local liquor store has its first electronic whiskey-sniffer, many distilleries are getting on board with more straightforward fraud-prevention measures like holographic images and QR codes. Buffalo Trace Distillery recently began placing security tags inside the caps of its premium whiskeys so buyers can use an app to determine whether the bottle has been opened before. Technology might just be the way out of the whiskey fraud debacle, and if we’re lucky, maybe we’ll have access to an e-nose in our own homes before long!
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