Spoiler: If you bought it in the last few years from one of the three auction sites mentioned below, then probably not. But if you are oldschool and bought from eBay or a non-whiskey specialist auction house, then maybe. This piece ran in the Indo recently:
Irish whiskey is booming. In the last 20 years we went from three distilleries on the island of Ireland – Cooley, Bushmills, and Midleton – to forty-plus, with more being announced all the time. This year Irish whiskey is forecast to hit 12.6m nine-bottle cases sold, and as with any object of desire, this now means the Irish whiskey category is a target for counterfeiters.
Jameson, the fastest growing Irish whiskey in the world and one of the top five international whiskey brands in the world, sold 10.4 million cases in 2021/22. This means it is also the most common target for counterfeiting – batches of fake Jameson have been uncovered in Zimbabwe, Russia, and Belarus.
But this is not a new phenomenon, as Carol Quinn, archivist with Irish Distillers Ltd – producers of Jameson – explains: “During prohibition in the US there was a spate of counterfeiting from bootleggers trading on Irish whiskey’s reputation for taste and quality. Unfortunately, punters discovered the poor taste and cheap quality of these counterfeits and the activity had an impact on the reputation of Irish whiskey, playing a significant role in its decline by the mid-20th century.
“Thankfully today, Irish whiskey producers are supported by organisations such as the Irish Whiskey Association which tackle issues related to mislabelling and protection of the category globally.”
The Irish Whiskey Association (IWA) is the body tasked with protecting the entire Irish whiskey category worldwide, which it does partly through securing Geographical Indication protections, which guarantees Irish whiskey is exactly that – whiskey from Ireland. Thanks to the IWA’s work, 85% of global whiskey sales are now subject to some form of legal protection, meaning they are sold in markets where only authentic Irish whiskey can be sold. It also means much tougher enforcement action can be taken against fake Irish whiskey products.
But beyond the issue of counterfeiting there is a different kind of fraud that can take place on what is called the secondary market – where rare bottles, old and new, are bought and sold at auction. In well-established drinks categories like scotch or bourbon, auction fraud can be common – but as the category here grows and grows, and bottles start to sell for larger and larger sums, fraudsters will look to cash in – in a recent auction here a bottle of Midleton Very Rare from 1989 sold for €15,700, an item that would have cost less than £50 púnt when it was bought at retail.
For those dealing in old and rare bottles in Ireland, vigilance is key. Scotsman Ally Alpine, owner of the Celtic Whiskey Shop on Dawson Street in Dublin, has been at the centre of the Irish whiskey scene for two decades now and has seen questionable bottles from time to time – but he says that if there was anything untoward about a bottle or a seller they simply wouldn’t carry it on Celtic Whiskey Auctions, their auction site.
“We’ve never had the occasion to involve gardaí and imagine we only would if we had 100% proof of fraud or attempted fraud. We do keep a record of sellers contact details and bottles could be traced back if there ever was a problem. However, we understand it’s something we have to be vigilant about and do have a counterfeit policy.”
Alpine believes that while as the category is currently booming, it still hasn’t hit the giddy heights of scotch whisky’s auction prices, so it is less likely to draw fraudsters in large numbers: “There hasn’t been the same temptation for forgers, as Irish whiskey was selling in the main for hundreds to thousands rather than tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.”
The scotch whisky auction scene sees bottles going for eye-watering sums; Scotland-based auction platform Whisky Auctioneer sold more than stg£50m worth of whisky last year, with high points including a 12-year-old Port Ellen whisky fetching stg£100,000.
Anthony Sheehy of Irish Whiskey Auctions says that forgers are only starting to appear in the Irish whiskey market, but only in small-scale operations – one or two bottles being refilled with younger cheaper liquids rather than the industrial operations uncovered in the UK or USA.
“It is mainly the pre-1980-1990 stuff where the greatest risk is, but that is not to say that the risk is not there for the later stuff. When bottles of 2009 Midleton Very Rare are selling for approximately €5,000 there is always going to be someone that is willing to try passing them off. We have been fortunate enough to catch items that we have had doubts about before we put them to auction.”
Sheehy says that while Irish whiskey auction prices are rising, they are still well off those reached by Japanese whiskeys, or revered super-lux scotch brands like The Macallan. However, his site has had some significant sales: “We have been lucky enough to sell some really high value bottles with a 1988 Midleton Very Rare selling for over €30,000, that bottle would originally have been sold at retail in 1988 for £45 púnt approximately. We have also sold some of the Midleton Silent Distillery releases which have traded privately at over €100,000 but we are still small fry compared to some scotch, Japanese and bourbon bottles with the current world record being €1.9 million for a bottle of Macallan 1926.”
As Sheehy’s business grows, so too does his need for vigilance, and to have a team of experts on hand to check every bottle: “The work is now spread over a few people instead of like in the early days where I literally had hands on with every single bottle that was on our auctions. I am lucky enough to have a great team who are whiskey fans too that know what to look out for and we have a process where they escalate any items that they have questions about and we as a team then assess it further and maybe involve some third party experts. Ultimately we have final refusal in the auction so if we have any doubts or suspicions then we do not list it.”
HOW TO SPOT A FAKE WHISKEY
Sheehy has some tips on how they spot fakes: “I can’t give away all our little tests and checks for spotting them as there is a risk that the wrong person will then develop ways around them, but rest assured that we have procedures that we go through for checking most bottles. We also have been lucky enough to build an external network of guys who are more expert than us at various brands and know more about the history and various releases that can provide an additional layer of security for us.
“In truth some of the fakes that I have seen have been fairly crude with obvious discrepancies in the labelling, alignment, and seals. The issue is that empties, display boxes, labels and capsules are so readily available on online marketplaces that then the only barrier is trying to get replica seals or closures.
“With pre-1950s bottles or older sometimes it is down to testing the spirit itself and there have been times where we have found the bottles to be correct but the contents are off somehow.”
But even for whiskey experts, fakes can be hard to spot. Will Murphy from Wexford has been collecting whiskey for almost 20 years – at its peak, he had some 400 bottles of whiskey in his collection. A qualified brewer and distiller, he is a keen auction watcher, buying both old bottles and whiskey memorabilia. Before there were specialised Irish whiskey auction sites like Celtic Whiskey Auctions, Irish Whiskey Auctions, or Whiskey Bidders, most older bottles showed up on the websites of fine art and antique auction houses, and in 2014, Murphy spotted a bottle he was suspicious of going to auction.
He had split a previous lot with another bidder, and Murphy, being suspicious when he noticed the dealer had been buying up old labels and bottles, marked one of the labels. He later saw the same label with his marking on it on a bottle which had sold at auction for a thousand euro, so he contacted the auction house and they dealt with it internally. But that wasn’t the only time he spotted a fake; after a friend asked for his advice on a Jameson 7 Year Old Irish Whiskey Three Star from the 1960s, which sells for €1,500, Murphy noticed suspicious pieces floating in the bottle and contacted the platform it was being sold on, and it was withdrawn. But not long after, the same bottle reappeared again without the pieces in it, and was subsequently removed once more. Murphy says that he was approached some time later by someone looking for a valuation on the same bottle as it was clearly still in circulation. But for all his expertise and wisdom, even Murphy wasn’t immune to being caught out by dodgy bottles. After losing an eBay auction for a very collectible miniature bottle of Breen Irish whiskey, the seller contacted Murphy directly to tell him he had another if he was interested.
“I bought it and used PayPal to pay him, but when it arrived I knew it was fake. It was freezing out and the liquid was clear without any particulates – older bottles always have some bits and weren’t chill filtered, so you’d expect haze. I was able to contact him because it was a private deal and his details were on PayPal.”
Murphy got his refund, and the seller claimed innocence, telling him they got the bottle from a friend who was a label collector. He says he still sees bottles at auction that he would have queries about but in all cases auction houses act quickly when contacted with concerns.
The IWA says that while they are aware of fakes at auction, as far as they are aware these instances are currently rare, but that the industry must remain vigilant: “As the long-term value of the category and secondary market grows, so too does future risk of counterfeit goods. Irish whiskey auction houses, whom the IWA has liaised with, are well placed to determine the authenticity of bottles but must continue to be alert. Furthermore, it is anticipated that anti-counterfeit technologies such as BlockChain, RFID chips etc. will be used increasingly to support the long-term value and authenticity of high value collectibles.”
For Anthony Sheehy, it’s not the auction houses people should be wary of, but private sales arranged over social media: “The real risk is the new fans of Irish whiskey that are perhaps not as knowledgeable but are seeing all the hype surrounding Irish whiskey and are blindly buying in private sales because someone told them it was all a good investment. As the prices are increasing or the world-wide interest then it is inevitable that more fakes will begin to appear.
“I would always recommend people to use speciality platforms when it comes to collectables and trust them before they part with their funds. Ask questions. No legitimate business will refuse questions. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”
We asked Ian Hayes of Irish whiskey auction platform WhiskeyBidders what his top three Irish whiskey bottles for investment were:
1. Midleton Very Rare:
This brand has been a great success for Irish Distillers Ltd. They started producing this in 1984 and have released a limited number of bottles each year with the year printed on the label, so it is very collectable. This can be a very good investment if bought at retail and then held for a number of years. A full set of Midleton Very Rare (or ‘MVR’ as it is known) from 1984 to 2023 (40 bottles) is worth around €80-90K in the current market. The 2023 edition retails at around €220 but it can be very hard to buy because it sells out so quickly. As an example, an MVR 2018 is worth around €350-400 in the current market and when released it was €180 retail, not a bad return after only five years.
2. Midleton Single Casks:
These are limited releases of a certain number of bottles from one particular cask, usually an aged cask of around 25-30 years. Each bottle is numbered as bottle No. 1 of 172, bottle No. 2 of 172 etc. The lower the total number of bottles then the rarer it is. These are once-off releases and as such are unique in their own way. They have been released in partnership with prestige hospitality outlets such as Adare Manor or Ashford Castle and also as Travel Retail (duty free) exclusive releases with Aer Rianta (you can only buy these in the airports). Due to the limited amount of numbered bottles, the age and quality of the whiskey, and the uniqueness of that particular cask release, these can be good long-term investments.
3. Redbreast Dreamcasks:
There have been six of these released so far, one per year for the last six years. They are aged from 20 years old to 32 years old and are amazing whiskeys to drink. They are sold by an online ballot on the Redbreast Birdhouse website and these are usually way oversubscribed. If you are lucky enough to win one then you are sure of making a good profit on it even if sold immediately at auction. They generally cost around €500-600 from the ballot and will sell for over €1000 at auction shortly after and should also appreciate over time.