A truly Scottish invention

A truly Scottish invention

Brian Hennigan reaches the controversial conclusion that if you want a real McCoy whisky con or rip-off then the only place to go is Scotland

History | 16 Nov 2001 | Issue 19 | By Brian Hennigan

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The history of whisky is synonymous with our understanding of rip-offs. The term “The Real McCoy” derives from a blend of whisky produced by G Mackay of Edinburgh. Very much the preferred tipple in its day, the phrase came into being as consumers sought to ensure they were getting the genuine article and not some Japanese import. The much-used slogan was eventually adopted by the company as its advertising motto in 1870.The term even crops up in the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson in 1883 (sadly there remain those who would attribute the origins of the phrase to either a boxer, Norman ‘Kid McCoy’ Selby or an inventor, Elijah ‘Hydrostatic Lubricator’ McCoy. As both of these chaps are non-Scottish they can be dismissed forthwith as impostors).As anyone who has ever met a Scot, been to Scotland, or received a souvenir Scottish tea towel knows, we invented everything, including the telephone, the television and the tea towel. Hand-towels we will (grudgingly) admit come from Norway. Indeed, so thoroughly immersed are we in the world of inventions, not only did we invent inventions, we also invented inventing. Our prowess in this area is second only to our skill in claiming people as Scottish on the slimmest of evidence. Witness Neil Armstrong, our national football team and haggis, which actually comes from a small village in India. Given that we incontrovertibly invented whisky – the usual laughable claims from Ireland notwithstanding – it is obvious that when it comes to whisky rip-offs, we invented them too. As shown in the following article from This Is Lancashire.“Shopkeepers have been left with a bad taste in their mouths after being tricked by a conman selling fake whisky.”
Apparently the metropolis of Great Harwood and Rishton was targeted by a “man, offering so-called brand name whisky at knock-down prices. The bottles are labelled and even sold in branded boxes. One duped shopkeeper, who did not want to be named, bought a bottle of Bell’s whisky for £25 for her husband.“‘It even came in a box,’ the shopkeeper said. ‘It looked genuine. Over a week later my husband tried to open it and found the top had been glued on. When he poured it out it smelled dreadful and he realised it was vinegar.’”While there is no evidence of the nationality of the perpetrator of this heinous act, it is surely the act of an over-zealous patriot taking advantage of the uninformed consumer (how else do you politely describe someone who would pay £25 for a bottle of Bell’s?). Of course, it would be entirely erroneous to think that being suckered into a deal in order to save a few pennies is a purely English trait. Even people in the African sub-continent can be deceived, as a report from Nairobi’s The Nation (26th December 2000) shows: “A driver in the city, Mr Fred Otieno, said yesterday he bought six bottles of alleged whisky, the Johnnie Walker Red Label type. But he got a rude shock when he placed the drink before his visitors and it turned out to be something else ... (Mr Otieno) bought the spirit at the Machakos Country Bus Station from a traveller who claimed he had lost his fare to pickpockets. The traveller allegedly sold the drinks to fetch money to go upcountry.”How many times have we all been duped by a man selling six bottles of Johnnie Walker in order that he might “go
upcountry”? Outside of Wales this is generally uncommon. The implicit warning here is to be wary of salesmen in bus stations, something most of us learned at our mother’s breasts. At least I think it was my mother.It will come as no surprise to discover that some of the most scurrilous counterfeit whisky products have originated in England. Envious not just of our intellectual capacity, natural good looks and footballing talents, the English are equally furious that whisky, the world’s premier spirit, belongs to us, while they are left with gin and tea, a terrible combination whatever the bus stop. Thus angered, they have set about trying to produce their own, in much the same way (and with the same degree of stylish success), as they have taken over the production and housing of Aberdeen Steak.In 1999 the British Anti-Counterfeiting Group issued a warning that there was a large-scale whisky fraud operation in
Wolverhampton, a borough not renowned for its Highland proximity. At the same time British Customs and Excise issued a warning about Scotch whisky being produced in the North of England containing methylated industrial spirits. The product, labelled Scotch Blended Royal Crown, proved particularly popular among those discerning open-air market consumers who wished to combine a weekend of wild partying with stripping the paint off the walls of the spare room. Indeed, in some parts of the country, the two activities are indistinguishable.Of course, spotting a forgery can be difficult. While some are obvious from their labelling – counterfeit brands such as Fairly Well-Known Grouse, English Teacher’s (often sold wrapped in an old tweed jacket) and The Glenlivid (which can leave a particularly nasty after-taste) – others require in-depth analysis and sampling. The Scotch Whisky Research Institute has devised a clever method determining whether blended whiskies are authentic or not. This involves the use of gas chromatography instrumentation “to identify and separate the volatile flavours”. A rival development, based on years of in-house research involves the use of “tongue and belly-based analysers” which can “say with extreme precision whether it’s any good or not”. Importantly, this latter method also disposes of any illicit produce.Of course, you don't need to actually buy whisky to get ripped off. As Frommer’s Travel Guide explains, when visiting
Edinburgh you can slip into “the deplorably bogus Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre (where you ride around in a fake whisky barrel)”. Mr Frommer has a point. The authentic whisky barrel experience would surely involve paying to go on a distillery tour, then being given 10 seconds to drill through one of the casks while your partner distracts the guide with requests for the whereabouts of the ladies’ convenience. In recent years, the largest and most reported scams have involved buying entire casks of whisky. These are often presented as “opportunities to invest”, with claims that the value of the contents can appreciate by as much as 18% a year. This is, of course, nonsense.As the Scotch Whisky Association makes clear: “The only certainty about owning a cask of Scotch is that it will lose roughly 2% of the contents though evaporation each year.” Even this is optimistic. There are many reported cases where entire bottles of whisky have evaporated over lunch. Any amount of thinking would reveal the strange mindset of those unfortunates who were duped, the basic premise being that some wee “two-man and a cat” company has found a way to make money out of whisky which the massive,
profit-driven drinks conglomerates who dominate the industry have somehow missed. The fact that these wee companies were based in London does not seem to have rung enough alarm bells. Take it for granted that if there were a way to make more money out of investing in whisky stocks, the people in the industry would already be doing it. Having said that, one
interesting side-effect of these whisky scams is that those who bought their “investment casks” using credit cards were protected under the Consumer Credit Act of 1974, with ownership of the casks, passing to the card issuers. This means that, according to one source, three of the British high street banks have been left with a “£70 million whisky loch”. A spokeswoman for Lloyds TSB commented that as soon as it matured they would be trying to get the best price possible for it. Which is a shame as it would be nice to think they might give a free bottle to anyone whose house they were re-possessing so that they might more quickly drown their sorrows. Failing that they could sell their own – HSBC Special Blend having a heady allure all of its own.Meanwhile in Scotland, the nation continues to tackle the problem of straightforward imitations. A situation we are addressing at the moment is the problem of bourbon, which we also invented. Two very well known American brands are in fact little more than sad imitations of the original Scottish makes, Jack MacDaniels and See You Jimmie Beam. The Scottish bourbon industry is but a pale reflection of the giant it once was. Once the battle has been played out to our satisfaction in the US courts, we’ll be off to Cuba to deal with its white spirits and the issue of MacArdi, a drink first made in Peebles around 1157. Maybe it was noon. Anyway, only then will there be justice. And we should know because we invented that too.
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