An old con

An old con

Dave Broom exposes the shady side of the antique, collectable whisky market\r

News | 16 Jan 2003 | Issue 28 | By Dave Broom

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It was over two years ago when the rumours began that slightly dubious bottles of old whiskies were beginning to appear at auction and were being offered to private collectors. These claims weren’t being made by one individual but by many, unconnected people. Archivists, ex-industry executives, retailers and collectors were all approaching me and talking about the same thing.The bottles had started to appear around six or seven years ago. What surprised many people was the fact that while in the past there may have been an occasional bottle appearing at auction, there now appeared to be a constant stream of obscure bottles which no one had ever seen before, most of them in remarkably good condition. Moreover, for the first time antique malt whiskies were appearing alongside the established blends. As one source said “It was almost too good to be true. I had one person saying ‘I can get anything you want.’” This may have been an idle boast, but given the sudden volume of rare bottles appearing, it seemed to be not far from the truth.Okay, it does happen. Bentleys are found in barns, Old Masters are discovered in lofts, the occasional case of fine wine or old whisky does appear. The difference here was it wasn’t just one bottle of each malt appearing. Two, three, even four identical bottles would be in each batch. To find one rare 19th century malt bottling is remarkable enough. To find two or three examples of the same bottle, in the same condition, is truly miraculous, yet it is a miracle which seems to be occurring on a regular basis. People’s suspicions were heightened when interested parties began to receive cases of the products for viewing. Everyone who has done this, myself included, has come to the same conclusion,
independently of each other. “I had only seen single bottles before,” said one person. “When I looked at them in a row I was struck by how similar they all looked.” It’s true. A huge number of the bottles appear to have the same type of capsule [the lead sleeve covering the cork and the top of the bottle neck] which was totally different to existing bottles of 19th century whisky, they all came in brown glass, the paper used on the labels appeared to be the same, the fill levels were all remarkably high and when you read the label the tone seemed to be more akin to the late 20th rather than late 19th century. As one person said to me: “They looked old. But they looked like a contemporary interpretation of old.” The fact that so many share these same characteristics infers that they come from the same source. By this time, distillers were also being approached. Since heritage is such big business, they were actively seeking out proprietary bottlings either at auction or privately. They looked more closely at the labels and picked out a catalogue of inconsistencies: in spelling, in dates, in age. The assumption that 19th
century distillers were slip-shod in their labelling couldn’t be further from the truth. Meticulous records were kept and firms were very precise about detail. Labels often formed the basis of vital copyrights (pre- 1867) and trademarks (post-1867). The registered company would have been correct, the spelling would have been consistent.THE FIRST PROOFThis was something which had been picked up by archivist Iain Russell, and Ross Gunn at (then Seagram-owned) Chivas Brothers. The bottles they were finding, or being shown, seemed authentic, but closer examination began to show that things weren’t quite what they seemed. There were spelling mistakes: ‘strength’ was often incorrectly spelled, the grammar was incorrect, there were anachronisms used which were unlikely for the time, while bottlers’ addresses were often not correct: one bottle, Ross Gunn recalled, came from the correct bottler but claimed to have been bottled at a site which hadn’t yet been occupied by the firm on the date the whisky was supposedly bottled there!A further anomaly was spotted by Iain Russell in an auction catalogue for 18th Nov 1998. In the brochure, Lot 397 was a bottle of “Titanic Old Scotch Whisky – early 20th century”. As this appeared at the height of Titanic-mania, it attracted a large amount of press interest. According to the story, the bottle had been produced to mark the launch of the Titanic in 1912 and had found its way, like so many of the bottles, to Italy. Entirely possible. Why shouldn’t its current owner, seeing the renewed interest in Titanic memorabilia, decide to cash in on it? Once again though, the label had a different story to tell. It claimed to be an “Old Scotch Whisky Distilled in Bottle by …” In bottle? An unlikely mistake. The catalogue goes on to quote the label referring to the distillers as being “Duncan Manning & Blak [sic], Whisky.”Not only a spelling mistake but a new use of quotation marks never before seen on a label in the UK. “I accept that it may be possible that a ‘Titanic blend’ was made by a legitimate company,” said Iain Russell, “and that this company may have placed the brand name in foreign-style quotation marks and that a genuine spelling mistake may have appeared in the name of that company, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t “distilled in bottle”, and I am very surprised to see such a claim (with what would appear to be spelling mistakes and foreign speech marks) on what is said to be an ‘early 20th century’ bottle.” Russell also failed to find a firm called Duncan Manning & Blak (or Black) operating in Glasgow at this time, though he accepts that such a company could have been operating in London or Liverpool, as indicated on the bottle label.I had begun to look around as well and had come across a bottle of Talisker claiming to be either bottled in or distilled in 1897 for a grocer called Proctor in Ballater. Once again things didn’t quite ring true. The label was incredibly clean and remarkably undamaged, as was the capsule, which was of the same type as so many of the antique bottles which were appearing. Unusually, it also bore an illustration on the label, a line-drawing of the distillery. The likelihood of a small grocer (even one possibly patronised by the Royal family) having such a complex and expensively produced label was surprising for this time. There were ‘own-labels’ produced for independent bottlers – the Gordon & MacPhail Glenlivet bottlings still use one of them – but the name of the grocer, as Iain Russell pointed out, was left blank, not pre-printed. Equally, the tone of the language on the label didn’t chime with the descriptors being used in the late 19th and early 20th century. “Skye malt liqueur whisky” is an unusual way to talk about the product, and “bonded and bottled in Scotland … ” – would a grocer in Deeside selling to the local community really want to say that on his label? The issue of a whisky being “bottled in Scotland” was not of any great concern at this time. I then heard that a second, identical, bottle was also doing the rounds.Diageo has the largest collection of archive material pertaining to the spirits industry with a significant, but incomplete, collection of old bottles and label books from distillery-owning companies. They were familiar with the ‘Proctor bottle’ which was unlike any they had seen before. They also have an extensive collection of drawings and illustrations of what Talisker looked like in the late 19th/early 20th century. Like most distilleries of that time it had a pagoda roof and a large brick chimney. Neither of these appeared on the label. In fact, the distillery in the drawing looked remarkably modern. I took the information to Dr Nicholas Morgan, who, before he became Marketing Director of Diageo’s malts group was the firm’s archivist. We looked at a modern (late ‘60s) shot of Talisker, one which has appeared in print many times. In it you can see the distillery’s thin metal chimney and three large metal-sided receivers. It wasn’t just similar to the Proctor label. It was the Proctor label, identical in every way. The only way this bottle could be genuine was if the illustrator was gifted with second sight. “On that basis I am prepared to swear in court that this label isn’t from the 19th century,” said Morgan. “It has to be an image of Talisker drawn at some point during the past 25 years.”AND MORE?Progress was slow, often frustrating. While sufficient evidence could be amassed to raise serious doubts as to the authenticity of many bottles, there was often never the final clinching proof. Occasionally, however, some could be shown to be fake. Two such bottles were both supposedly from Macallan, one from 1872, the other from 1888 (sold at auction) and purporting to have been bottled by Stephen Smith & Co. Ltd. Once again the labels were remarkably unmarked and also complex. While there was a wine and spirit merchant called Stephen Smith (who did blend and bottle whisky and was at one time the owner of the largest vineyard in Australia), Companies House could find no record of
it trading at this time, and trade journals could find no mention of the firm offering bottled, mature malt whisky. Still, it was possible that they had a few casks hidden away and decided to bottle it at a much later date. The label stated that the 1888 whisky was “produced and bottled by Roderick Kemp, Proprietors, Macallan and Talisker Distilleries Ltd”. The 1872, strangely, was “Selected by Proprietor R. Kemp, Macallan-Glenlivet and Talisker Distilleries Ltd”. There was no record of either firm in Companies House. That isn’t particularly surprising. Roderick Kemp had owned (or part-owned) both Macallan and Talisker distilleries, but not at the same time! He sold his interest in Talisker in 1892 and then used the money to buy Macallan. In 1898 Talisker merged with Dailuaine to form Dailuaine-Talisker Distilleries Ltd. At no point did he own both Talisker and Macallan. Kemp was a businessman. He wouldn’t put an illegal company name on his whisky. Neither would he have deviated from standard business practice and changed the name of his firm willy-nilly.THE CAMPBELTOWN TIDAL WAVEBy this time every auction seemed to bring forth new examples of dubious bottles. One such was an Ardbeg 1885 which was sold at auction in September 2000 for £1,250. The lower label reads: “This specially selected of Islay Single malt distilled 1885 by Ardbeg Distillery has been matured in wood for upwards of 10 years. Alexander McDougall & Co. Ardbeg Distillery, Isle of Islay. Charles R. Haig, Sole Agents … “ Would a malt be described as “selected of Islay malt?” Additionally, checks with Neil Wilson (a Glasgow-based specialist whisky publisher) and Ardbeg / Glenmorangie showed that the owner of Ardbeg at the time was Alexander MacDougall, not Mc. The chances of the owner having his name spelled incorrectly on his own label is remote.Around the same time a tidal wave of Campbeltown whiskies, none of which had ever been seen before, appeared. As one person said: “What has always amazed me about this is that there seems to be a never-ending supply. Until last year I’d only ever seen one Campbeltown whisky come up at auction. Now there’s a rush.” That in itself is no proof of guilt. The problem with double-checking the Campbeltown whiskies was that when distilling in the town collapsed the records were lost. Local historians, archivists and Springbank were approached but nothing appears to exist to prove or disprove the authenticity of the bottles, two in particular. I was slightly concerned about a 15 year old Longrow purporting to date from 1864 – meaning it was distilled in 1849. Was the distiller, Beith Ross, really selling 15-year-old single malt at the end of the 19th century? Of equal concern was a 10-year-old Rieclachan from the beginning of the 20th century. The legend “Aged Ten Years Old” on the label somehow doesn’t quite ring true. Though suspicious, until there is further proof they must be given the benefit of the doubt.Equally odd was a series of bottles (an 18-year-old Macallan as well as bottles from Dundashill, Lochhead, Lochindaal and Hazelburn) allegedly from the early 20th century all bottled by R. Thorne & Sons Ltd, Glasgow, Scotland. These too have ornate labels and capsules in a remarkably pristine condition. Thorne was a well known bottler, but while the labels say “est. 1831/51” the records at Companies House show the firm was first registered as a limited company between 1891 and 1893. While there is a record of Thorne bottling a 6-year-old Macallan in 1898, an 18-year-old remains questionable. Again, however, until further forensic evidence is carried out they must be presumed clean.The ongoing investigation has involved a wide selection of specialists. One paper conservator, looking at the labels on a selection of bottles, pointed out that though the paper has been distressed, it had worn away in unlikely places. The centre-front of the label, the area which would normally be the first to be damaged, is untouched. Any ‘distressing’ of these labels tends to occur on the corners.The capsules on most of the bottles which were felt to be dubious not only looked the same but were in a remarkably pristine condition with the only sign of ‘age’ being a chalky dusting on the very top. Again this isn’t cast iron proof of a forgery, but enough to raise questions.It is getting absolute proof that has slowed much of the investigation down. The fact a bottle may not look right isn’t sufficient to stand up in court. The bottle may be a genuine old bottle, the label may be a genuine old label (or printed on antique paper) but that doesn’t mean that the product is what it claims to be. The devil is in the detail: the language on the label for example. The regular misspelling of “strength”, and the “Aged Ten Years Old” points to someone with English as asecond language, not to a business which was precise about detail. The likelihood of Roderick Kemp putting the wrong company on his label, the chances of Alexander MacDougall misspelling his own name, are so remote as to be virtually impossible. However, this means that even when forensic checks are run on, say, the paper and glass, and both are proved to be authentic, the bottle then still has to be checked according to: a) what is known to have been on the market from that distillery at that time; b) whether the distillery records (if in existence) show either a sale being made to the bottler or that the distiller was bottling the product; c) whether the bottler existed at that time (or at all); d) whether the labels on the bottle were used at that time and e) whether those labels were using contemporaneous technology. It is a lot of work but if you were spending up to £10,000 on a bottle wouldn’t you want to have that security?Yet, despite the growing weight of evidence, many people in the industry argue that fakes are few and far between. What appears to have been ignored is the simple fact that very few malts were being bottled in the 19th and early 20th century. The references in Barnard’s The Whisky Distilleries of The United Kingdom (and he was after all writing in a trade magazine) to what we would call ‘single malt’ can be counted on one hand. The malt whisky of this time was, even more than today, made for blends. If it was bottled it would be for the Scottish market. The idea that 10, 12, 18 or 22-year-old malts were being aged, bottled and drunk by malt connoisseurs is ludicrous. The market was completely different to that of today. Why did blends appear? Because their flavour was milder – i.e. more acceptable – than malt. This is an accepted fact, yet there appears to be selective blindness when a 22-year-old 19th century bottle from Distillery X appears, amazingly, with a vintage flash. Equally, wine merchants didn’t hold on to stock for over 40 years before bottling it. The market for super-aged malt simply didn’t exist until very recently. In my opinion, it is wishful thinking to believe that it did.“A number of people have turned a blind eye to this,” said one source. “The auctioneers, who don’t necessarily have the expertise. Writers haven’t questioned what has been going on and the industry itself has by and large rejected the evidence. Collectors, too, appear to be suffering from cognitive dissonance: if they want to believe it, they will.”Apparently even telling a collector that there is a chance the bottle isn’t genuine won’t put him/her off. It actually makes the item even more desirable.“After all,” I was told, “even a fake van Gogh is worth a lot of money!” The auction houses have a responsibility to the consumer, as does the industry itself. They should be able to demonstrate the provenance of every bottle being sold before it goes on the market.“When you buy something at auction you need someone to assure you of its provenance,” said Nicholas Morgan. “The astounding thing about whisky auctions is that beyond the auctioneer’s interpretation of what is in front of them – which is occasionally inaccurate – these bottles are being sold without any ability to prove provenance. It’s amazing given the amount of money which is being paid. This has allowed the field to be opened to unscrupulous players to prey on the desires of collectors.”As our own investigations show, it is difficult to prove things 100 per cent one way or the other, but, as we discovered, there are experts out there who are willing to share their expertise on glass, on printing technology, on paper, on whether bottlers existed. A check with Companies House takes no more than 24 hours and some distillers – though not enough – still have an archivist.The collector should also think seriously about the likelihood of a small distillery bottling a 21-year-old single malt whisky in the 19th century. This is a booming market, and whenever a commodity becomes hot property it is inevitable that chancers will appear. What is also the case, however, is that both auction houses and distillers must be vigilant. It is their responsibility to check the provenance of each bottle and not make wildly inaccurate claims about products despite the evidence that there could be doubts about their authenticity.Rather than giving dubious bottles the benefit of the doubt, does it not make more sense to reject them – or at least run checks? Iain Russell summed up everyone’s opinion on the matter.“My advice is caveat emptor,” he said. “Check out the provenance of a bottle if you are about to shell out a lot of cash on it.” The fact remains that the auction house or distillery should be doing this in the first place, but since the evidence suggests they are not, the collector must step in. For our part, we are still examining a significant number of bottles.This is a business in which many people are spending – and making – huge amounts of money. It ought to be run in a business-like fashion.
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