How One Auctioneer Helped Police Catch a Whisky Thief

“There was a fraudster within the Scotch whisky community. We found him, and we’ve taken him out,” says Isabel Graham-Yooll with ice-cool composure. The director of Whisky.Auction in London was instrumental in exposing a forger’s scheme to defraud whisky collectors of tens of thousands of dollars.

The one thing collectors and auctioneers are left to wonder: is this just the tip of the iceberg?

“He was the Rudy Kurniawan of whisky and spirits. As we’ve discovered since his arrest, this was a huge crime,” says Graham-Yooll. Kurniawan, an infamous wine counterfeiter, famously duped well-heeled collectors and highly regarded auction houses with his counterfeit Burgundy and Bordeaux until his arrest in 2012.

While others revel in the presence of rare whisky, Graham-Yooll’s job is to eye each bottle with suspicion. In her line of work, some degree of paranoia is an advantage; all the better to ferret out fake whiskies hiding among the genuine articles. With two decades in the spirits trade, she has developed a sixth sense for forgeries.

A Cool Customer

‘Can you come ’round here and collect some bottles?’ asked the new customer over the phone. “A call like that is really odd in itself,” explains Graham-Yooll. Most new clients want to meet at the auction house, in person, but this caller claimed to be a big collector, the owner of a large whisky and spirits collection, and he presented a certain degree of swagger. “He was someone we had never come across before. This guy came out of the blue with a perfect collection.”

Graham-Yooll researches, examines, and documents all the whiskies she receives before auction, and the collector’s first tranche of 30 or so eclectic whiskies seemed to pass muster. “They seemed fine, but I spotted a fake among them and explained that to him.” One fake isn’t enough to set off any alarms. “If you’re a prolific collector, you can accidentally end up with a fake,” she says. It’s her job to reject the bottle and inform the consigner, usually acknowledging it as a simple case of bad luck.

How the Whisky Industry Combats Fakes

Most collectors are shocked, even angered to discover there is a bogus whisky among their gems, but this particular client showed little emotion. “He sent in another batch, we spotted a couple of fakes again, then funnily enough, there were more and more. My colleagues visited his apartment a few times to collect bottles and build up a good client relationship. So we had already got to know him, or thought we knew him, at the stage when we became suspicious.” With every new batch of whisky, the number of fakes increased.

Inside the Forger’s Lair

When Graham-Yooll made her first house call to the collector’s tiny rented apartment in Finchley, a neighborhood best known as Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary constituency and the birthplace of pop singer George Michael, the seller had no reason to be suspicious. That day, Graham-Yooll came on the pretense of negotiating a private sale of some bottles. Stepping over the threshold, the most extraordinary panoramic collection of whisky greeted her: around 500 bottles on display, and even more bottles in boxes stacked on the floor. The collection ran the full gamut of extraordinary single malt whiskies, blends, and other rare spirits. “The place was full of stuff,” Graham-Yooll emphasizes. “As well as the bottles, there were books on spirits and other collected whisky paraphernalia.”

The label peels from a fake Macallan at Bonhams Hong Kong. (Photo courtesy of Bonhams Hong Kong)

Dazzling as the collection was, when others take in the grandeur of the forest, Graham-Yooll is carefully checking out the trees. “The first thing is the ‘wow factor,’ you’re looking at the next one and the next one, but then you gradually start noticing the subtle differences. ‘Wait a minute, I’m sure that had a different closure, I’m sure that liquid is a different color.’” The owner was sweating profusely, and it was time for Graham-Yooll to turn up the heat.

Guided by her suspicions, the magnitude of the deception she had uncovered became apparent. Graham-Yooll walked away determined to put an end to the fraud. “All the way through, it’s felt very personal,” she says unblinkingly. “This guy was attempting to con me and my team. I take this very personally, and I also take it very personally on behalf of the Scotch whisky and spirits community, and that’s very genuinely felt.”

Whisky counterfeiting is not on top of the priority list at Scotland Yard. “There’s no department set up to deal with whisky fraud,” shrugs Graham-Yooll. “Think of all the crimes they have to deal with, such as muggings, kidnappings, and stolen vehicles.” This year’s terrorist attacks in London put an additional strain on the city’s police force. “Someone putting the wrong label on a bottle of whisky is not on their radar.” But whisky has a way of bringing people together, and ultimately a whisky-loving senior member of the force took an interest and set the investigation in motion. “From then on, we worked closely with the police to bring it to a conclusion,” Graham-Yooll says. “At the end of the day, this was a huge crime.”

Dawn Raid

The mission got the green light and on the dark winter morning of February 2nd, 2017 a squad of at least five Metropolitan police officers from Organized Crime Command drove in convoy across London to make an arrest. More accustomed to wrangling organized crime bosses, trident gangs, and drug dealers, this would be their first time taking down a whisky fraudster. “We’re the experts in the field, so we had to guide them through it,” Graham-Yooll explains. “At the same time, they were explaining to us what evidence they needed to make this work.” It was not a matter of collecting a few fingerprints. The auction team shared their expertise and supplies so the police would be able to box, move and store hundreds of whisky bottles as evidence. They described the instruments of forgery the police might find: wax, labels, glue, cutting equipment, screw caps, capsules, and spirit caramel to make cheap liquid look darker.

“The quality of the fakes was so superb, it was difficult to know which ones to confiscate.”

Entering the apartment, the police were confronted by the wall of bottles and began their investigative work, with Graham-Yooll arriving after the culprit had been led away to the police station. Three officers sifted through every inch of the jam-packed room. “The quality of the fakes was so superb, it was difficult to know which ones to confiscate.”

But there was little doubt that Graham-Yooll’s instincts had been correct. The police soon found all the clandestine trappings of the fraudster’s squalid trade—capsules, wax, empty bottles, labels—some authentic and others printed at home. Underneath the displays of trophy bottles, they found boxes of rare whiskies and incomplete projects concealed under drapes and inside cupboards. “They were secreted all over the place, and opening up each box, we found a different tool for the ‘art’ hidden inside,” she says. They found ancient corks carefully maintained with moisture so they could be reused, glass stoppers, and Italian tax strips, used to lend authenticity to newly corked bottles. If there was any lingering doubt that this suspect was just an innocent victim, this appeared to be their smoking gun.

There is no single perfect method for counterfeiting whiskies. The forgeries included genuine bottles that had been refilled and resealed and fake bottles created by affixing new labels to other bottles, a monumental effort aimed at deceiving and confusing even the most savvy collectors. “At the moment, we’re pretty sure he wasn’t working alone, for a variety of reasons,” reveals Graham-Yooll. “There must have been people who knew what he was doing and turned a blind eye, but that’s just our opinion. It’s difficult to assess, as there are people with a genuine interest in old labels that fill collectors’ books; you can’t tar them all with the same brush.”

Clearly, someone was selling him the empty bottles, the vintage stoppers. Right now anyone can go to eBay and find a variety of empty bottles for sale, including dozens of Pappy Van Winkle bottles. Not all these bottles, which sometimes sell for hundreds of dollars each, are destined to be innocent backbar decorations or candle holders, so it raises the question: to what degree is such a seller complicit?

A misaligned screw cap signals a bottle that may have been opened and refilled.

“This whisky forger was prolific,” Graham-Yooll says with repugnance. “He had been doing this for a while and he had built up his techniques. This was someone intelligent and skilled, someone who was following the market, and someone aware of where he could produce valuable spirits that were difficult to verify.”

Part of his success came from targeting the right types of bottles, never aiming too high. When you go to the corner store, they look closely at a $100 bill for authenticity, but don’t bother examining a $10. It’s the same with whisky. A $100,000 bottle receives more scrutiny. It’s much easier to succeed in passing off a mid-priced blend than a coveted single malt.

This case stands apart from the occasional counterfeit bottle consigned to auction. “The key thing for us was this: he was making fake bottles and putting them on the market and then he opted to sell direct to us. That’s how we caught him. The police are very keen to get this through and because we managed to track down the actual faker, we’re hopeful of a conviction,” she says.

Had the alleged forger been less brazen, he may have persisted for years. Long after Kurniawan’s deception ceased, collectors and auction houses are still reeling. Some are out millions of dollars, and by some estimates thousands of his counterfeits still pollute private collections, just waiting to resurface.

Like with Kurniawan, hubris contributed to this whisky counterfeiter’s downfall. “We suspect he had being doing it for a long time and had got cocky because he had been successful in the past selling privately to collectors. The quality of the fakes was very high and we’ve not seen anything of that standard before,” says Graham-Yooll.

Vintage Deception

Whether prescription drugs, tobacco, or handbags, counterfeit goods are rife in our society. They cost legitimate businesses billions of dollars each year. The increasing value of rare whisky will attract forgers. As collectors grow eager, even desperate, to acquire rare whiskies, criminals are drawn to the opportunity like sharks to blood in the water.

How to Spot a Fake Whisky

The soaring volume of whisky sales makes prevention even more difficult, as fake whisky can come in numerous guises (see Spot a Fake). More than 10,000 bottles of whisky flow through the main whisky auction businesses each month, with hundreds of them selling for upward of $1,000 apiece. The new breed of investor-collector is a counterfeiter’s dream. Simply refilling genuine bottles with impostor liquid is among the simplest ways to counterfeit and one of the hardest to detect. Corked and resealed, they can look incredibly convincing, even though they might be filled with a bottom-shelf blend, or perhaps cold tea masquerading as a sherry-hued luxury malt. All the proof is there, just beneath the cork. But in an era when fewer collectors actually drink their prized purchases, fakes might linger, sealed for decades before being discovered.

An imperfect closure betrays a fake bottle of Hanyu Joker at Whisky Auctioneer.

All auction houses have been offered fakes, and some have unwittingly sold them. When a fake whisky does make it as far as an auction listing, the whisky community can become responsible for crowdsourced scrutiny. Back in 2013, a bottle of early 20th century Macallan-Glenlivet bottled by Roderick Kemp of Macallan and Talisker Distilleries was listed in the online auction catalog prior to a sale at McTear’s Auctioneers in Glasgow. A Twitter exchange erupted when it was pointed out that Kemp sold Talisker in 1892 to buy Macallan, but never controlled both simultaneously. The auction house countered and Twitter questioned why a Kemp bottle of Macallan had a Bulloch & Lade capsule. After a protracted digital debate, the suspect bottle was pulled the day before the sale, in an apparent concession.

First Line of Defense

Scotch Whisky Auctions in Glasgow is the world’s largest whisky auction business. The company handles more than 6,000 bottles a month, and with that quantity of whisky, it’s not surprising it encounters fakes once or twice each week. “On a percentage basis, that’s still very small, but they are high-end bottles, so we’re looking at quite a bit of damage if one of these get through,” says Ewan Thomson, head of photography and research, Scotch Whisky Auctions.

When counterfeits arrive from overseas, there’s little auction houses can do beyond recording them and returning the bottles. “Technically, there’s nothing illegal about owning a fake bottle of whisky, it’s just when you come to sell it that there’s a problem,” says Thomson, acknowledging that determining the seller’s awareness and motive is complicated. “As long as we catch it, we can do our best to verify it, but we are being very strict about what we accept.” At Whisky Auctioneer in Perth, founder Iain McClune has experienced similar issues, “We had a couple of Hirsch bottles arrive recently from Spain, and they looked terrible, a pretty poor attempt, but the guy had owned them for 15 years.” Like some auctioneers, he is especially careful because he assumes responsibility for selling a fake. “I strongly feel that even if someone bought a fake bottle from us, we would take full responsibility for it to make sure no one loses out,” adds McClune.

Auction houses collaborate to share intelligence to stop fake bottles from resurfacing elsewhere. It’s fake whisky whack-a-mole. “We do work together, we discuss things when they come up, we’ve talked to each other about what was found in London, and there’s a mutual understanding that it’s not just one of us in isolation,” McClune says. With so few U.S. locations offering whisky auctions, more collectors are buying whisky through closed Facebook groups, Craigslist, shady brokers, hustlers, and other peer-to-peer enterprises. “People get fearful and then they go in the wrong direction,” cautions Graham-Yooll. “You should stick to the people you trust…. Auctions are by far the best place to buy old whiskies because you have someone to go to if you find something wrong, which you don’t have if you’re buying it from some bloke in a pub.”

“It’s the dirty secret that no one wants to admit…There is a lot of stuff that you never hear about. They won’t admit to it, but I think a lot of [whisky companies] are worried that the whole thing is going to explode and come back on them.”

Graham-Yooll lobbies for greater deterrence through smarter design and technology. “That’s something we should all be shouting about. Neutral clear plastic security seals on the closures of higher-value bottlings, for example. They spend so much energy putting these amazing products together that they don’t want to ruin it by using a seal that hides their high-quality finish. I could buy those seals on the internet by the hundred and just do it at home. The producers must make it more difficult to produce fakes.”

“It’s the dirty secret that no one wants to admit,” Graham-Yooll says vehemently. “They have departments—they don’t call it the fakes and forgeries department, but you would never guess exactly what they are doing. It’s like black ops. Some of the bigger companies have private investigators; there is a lot of stuff that you never hear about. They won’t admit to it, but I think a lot of [whisky companies] are worried that the whole thing is going to explode and come back on them,” she states. Whisky producers are aware and are taking action (see The War on Fake Whisky) by developing both overt and covert techniques to prevent counterfeiting. Starting in 2014, the Scotch Whisky Research Institute partnered in the EU Framework 7 Project on Food Integrity, a joint effort of 38 European partners with expertise in different aspects of food authenticity.

Demonstrating just how challenging the problem is, even whisky producers have been duped. Former staff at Macallan purchased fake 19th century bottlings of their own whisky at auction back in the late 1990s. They even released several Macallan Replica whiskies based on the forgeries before the deception was revealed. As the world’s most collected Scotch whisky, Macallan has since taken a leadership role in fraud prevention, according to Ken Grier, creative director, Macallan. “Security features such as the holographic image of our iconic Easter Elchies house have been in place since 2009 to help to deliver confidence to whisky collectors and auctioneers around the world,” says Grier.

The Finchley Forger was released on bail and failed to make an appearance in April. The Metropolitan Police are “making enquiries to try to locate him,” but with whisky auction volumes at an all time high, the whisky world presents a big place to hide. You’d be wise to eye every bottle with suspicion.

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