fine journalism that revealed a massive fraud in old bottles of Macallan. The wine world too is periodically rocked by counterfeiting scandals. There is one going on right now. Whether it's whiskey or art, when prices soar forgery soon follows.
Until recently, counterfeiting wasn't much of a problem with American whiskey. It wasn't worth the trouble when the most desirable bottles only sold for hundreds of dollars. That changed when secondary market prices, particularly for Van Winkle whiskey, soared into four figures.
Many rather shabby fakes have appeared recently, leading dimwits to conclude that they can spot the counterfeits. You can't. Why? Because most of them are refilled bottles. Faking the closure is all you have to do and it's not that difficult for someone with a modicum of skill.
One problem with forged whiskey that isn't an issue in, for example, the art market is the whiskey resale market's underground nature. Selling alcohol without a license is illegal everywhere in the United States. It's true that the agencies charged with prosecuting that 'crime,' the state alcoholic beverage authorities, have bigger fish to fry and rarely go after collectors. But the illegal nature of the marketplace forces it underground, into private networks and secret groups on Facebook, and other social networking sites.
The market's underground nature also makes it attractive to thieves. It gives them cover. If your illegal whiskey transactions go bad, you can't very well call the police, can you?
You may think you're safe if you buy your overpriced Pappy from a licensed retailer, but some of them buy their 'special stock' on the secondary market too. Yes, that's illegal, and consequently those retailers may not care if the bottles are fakes. They may even be forgers themselves or in cahoots with forgers. Except where the state dictates prices, retailers are free to charge any price they want, so charging inflated prices for prestige bottles is generally legal. The producers and distributors may not like it (and they don't) but there isn't anything they can do about it. Is that $2,000 bottle of Pappy at the liquor store authentic? It might not be.
The online auction site, eBay, stopped alcohol sales several years ago, so what does eBay have to do with this? It's simple. You can sell empty bottles on eBay and people do, sometimes for hundreds of dollars. You can sell empty bottles wherever you want, it's perfectly legal. You can, however, be pretty sure that anyone who is willing to spend hundreds of dollars for an empty bottle of Pappy 23 is planning to refill it and sell it for thousands.
So, the folks who made the graphic above have this suggestion for people who want to sell their empty bottles but don't want to encourage and enable fraud. When you offer your bottles for sale, do these two things:
1. Include clear photos of the laser-coded numbers on the bottle. The bourbon community will keep track of those codes and match them against any new full bottles offered for sale.
2. Drill a small hole in the base of the bottle. The hole will not be noticeable if the bottle is for a lamp (as some buyers claim), or if it’s intended to be filled with liquid for display. The hole can easily be plugged but never fully disguised, which discourages resale as a counterfeit.
The other problem, of course, is that many of the people who pay absurd prices for Pappy and other prestigious bottles (full) are morons. They are people with way more money than sense. They want to be instant connoisseurs, so they buy what everybody says is 'the best,' and don't care how much it costs. If awareness that fraud is now rampant chases some of those people away, well then that's the silver lining.