Like many whisky lovers, Professor Gordon Cook of the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center would love to get his hands on some Macallan 1878 27 year old. Yet he has no intention of putting it in his mouth. The whisky recently captured a lot of attention when a Chinese multi-millionaire reportedly paid 9,999 Swiss francs ($10,000) for the dram at the Hotel Waldhaus am See in St. Moritz, Switzerland. What’s even more surprising than the exorbitant price: the whisky may be a fake.
The vintage bottle’s label raised suspicion with the words, ‘Roderick Kemp. Proprietor, Macallan and Talisker Distilleries Ltd.’—an improbable phrase as Kemp never owned Macallan and Talisker distilleries simultaneously. Similar bottles have appeared before, including one withdrawn from an auction in Glasgow in 2013 under suspicion of forgery.
Cook says he can conclusively determine whether the whisky is real or a forgery. “This bottle is open; therefore, there is only one test required: Date the whisky,” he says. Cook is the right man for the job, with the only laboratory in Scotland with experience in radiocarbon dating whiskies, a technique more often found in the fields of paleontology and archaeology. “It’s quite feasible that someone could buy an old bottle on the internet and fill it with something else. [So] I don’t think testing the bottle would tell you anything,” he says, citing the lucrative and questionable trade in empty bottles.
How To Radiocarbon Date Whisky
With just a few milliliters of whisky, and for a cost of around $500, Cook, an environmental geochemist, says he could get to the bottom of the mystery within 3 to 4 weeks. The radiocarbon dating process begins by distilling off the alcohol, then combusting it. “We take the carbon dioxide that’s formed and turn that into pure graphite using iron as a catalyst,” he explains. “We’re then left with a small amount of iron powder with a carbon coating on the surface. That goes into an accelerator mass spectrometer where we measure the 14C to 13C ratio [explanation below], then compare the results against a number of different standards to get an age.” By focusing on just the alcohol, Cook eliminates the influence of the oak cask in which the whisky aged.
14C (carbon-14) is a radioactive isotope of carbon that’s produced in the upper atmosphere by solar rays at an almost constant rate, though it’s a tiny amount of the total carbon in the biosphere. Humans have caused two main alterations in the balance of 14C levels. First, 14C levels were depleted during the industrial revolution when coal, oil, and natural gas were burnt as fuel. The slight decrease in 14C is known as the Suess Effect, and helps to authenticate whiskies from the pre-nuclear age. Fake whiskies made from ethanol derived from petrochemical sources have zero 14C, making them easily identifiable. Second, following the use and testing of atomic weapons in the 1950s, atmospheric 14C levels doubled until the Test Ban Treaty in 1963, and they have been falling ever since.
“Radiocarbon dating will not tell you if the whisky is from the 19th century,” admits Cook. “It will only tell you if it’s pre-1950s.” The peaked A-shaped calibration curve is much more accurate for identifying periods covering the past 60 or 70 years. “Once you get on the bomb curve, we can get to within a year or two [of a whisky’s age], because the radiocarbon level changes so quickly,” Cook says. “The only problem is that you can have the same value for radiocarbon on one point of the upslope and one point on the downslope, so sometimes you need other information to work out which side of the curve you are on.”
If the Swiss hotel’s $375,000 bottle of Macallan is a post-1950s spirit, then Cook’s lab will spot that quickly and accurately. If it does date earlier than the 1950s, then the next step is to look at the profile of different congeners in the whisky using mass spectrometry. Comparing this pattern with existing profiles held by Macallan (which has put both genuine and fake whiskies through mass spectrometry) could confirm it’s one of theirs. Of course, there are a lot of big ‘ifs’ in this scenario.
Staying Ahead of the Forgers
Early in the current century, Macallan bought many bottles of its own whisky that were seemingly from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The bottles were later discovered to contain fake whisky, though some of the bottles themselves were authentic, adding an interesting footnote to the story
Nevertheless, limited edition Macallan has performed consistently well at auction, commanding some of the highest prices ever recorded (See “Record Breaking Whisky” in Whisky Advocate’s Fall 2017 issue). Macallan has designed many contemporary limited edition bottles to be difficult to copy, with complex packaging and integral security features such as a hologram on the bottle’s neck. Other whisky companies, such as Elixir Distillers, have implemented Prooftag as a security and authentication feature on their most precious releases and we expect others will follow.
Professor Cook hopes to have the opportunity to test the Macallan 1878, but cautions that more of the 19th century whiskies he tests turn out to be fake than real. Macallan itself has nothing to prove. It is us, the whisky consumers and buyers, who need to educate ourselves about fake whisky and be vigilant for our own protection.