It's an ancient industry worth billions to Scotland, and renowned across the globe. But the whisky world is at risk from a rising number of counterfeiters flooding the market with fakes, in some cases lethal ones. South American, Russian, Italian and Bulgarian crime cartels, and a shadowy figure dubbed the ‘Young Irishman’, are among those rumoured to be responsible for passing off bogus bottles to some of the world’s biggest collectors. HANNAH RODGER investigates the efforts being made to foil the fraudsters and protect Scotland’s national drink.

FAKE whisky merchants are conning unsuspecting collectors out of millions of pounds ... and asking experts for their help to do it.

Professional valuers and brokers say they are contacted all the time by con artists asking for opinions on fake bottles and details about why they think they are bogus.

Andy Simpson, co-founder of whisky analysis company RareWhisky101, said in the four years since the firm started, he doesn’t remember a week in which he hasn’t been asked to evaluate a fraudulent bottle by someone he suspects is a con artist.

He explained: “Last week we were asked to look at about 10 bottles, worth around £35,000, which were fake.

“Relatively frequently we get an email from an address that will be something like ‘’ and an image sent through asking what we think of their bottle.

“If we tell them it’s fake, they will ask for all the reasons why. We never tell them, of course. We will give one or two reasons, but we suspect they approach us to try and better their fraudulent operations.”

Despite the regular communication with suspected con artists, Mr Simpson has never met one in person, but rumours circulate around the industry of an infamous figure known only as the Young Irishman responsible for some of the most sophisticated frauds of rare pre-1900 whisky.

Simpson explained: “What we think we are seeing is an ongoing programme of fakes and forgeries. Some of the earlier fakes originated from Italy. There are some big collections of pre-1900 bottles in Italy. All of them need carbon dating so I can’t sit and say they are all fake, but the story is that there were big Italian collectors in the 1990s bought collections from someone who is referred to as the Young Irishman.

“Who that is, I have asked the question ... I’ve been told ‘we can’t remember, we don’t know’. We have tried to find out who he is many times.

“The rumour is that some old bottles originated in Ireland, they were empty and refilled and many were then copied as well."

Questions were first raised about the pre-1900 whiskies after Chinese millionaire Zhang Wei spent £7,600 on a dram of 1878 Macallan single malt – the world’s most expensive whisky – while staying at a Swiss hotel in 2017.

Simpson and his business partner David Robertson later tested the alcohol, which turned out to be fake. It was in fact a blended whisky dating around 1970 – nearly 100 years younger than what the hotel had believed it was selling.

The pre-1900s hit the headlines again last year when Simpson and Robertson said publicly that all bottles in that age range should be considered fake until proven genuine. They had been carbon-dating ancient bottles for two years and found all those tested to be counterfeit. If genuine they would have been worth in excess of £600,000.

Simpson said: “If we go back to Switzerland, the Waldhaus Am See hotel [where the fake 1878 Macallan was served], when we carbon-dated that the date on it was 1970-1972. That gave us a useful reference point. That was one of the old classic Italian fakes.”

The pair later carbon-dated a bottle of Ardbeg from 1885, which turned out to be a whisky distilled in 1990, followed by a 1903 Laphroaig – actually a whisky from 2007-2010.

If estimates are true, around £41 million worth of rare whiskies currently circulating in the secondary market, or in existing collections, are fake.

While the damage from counterfeit whisky is mainly reputational, with consumers losing trust in the products they are buying, the impact of bogus booze can be far more devastating.

In 2015, 11 people died and dozens more were hospitalised in Siberia after a batch of fake Jack Daniels was found to contain methanol – an alcoholic solvent typically used in antifreeze. In September 2018, around 30 people were killed in Malaysia from drinking the same substance masquerading as whisky, and in India, where around 40% of alcohol consumed is thought to be illegally made, more than 100 people have died from drinking methanol disguised as whisky.

Russian police regularly work with expert labs to analyse whiskies they believe are fake to cut down on the counterfeit alcohol in circulation.

The risk of death, Simpson said, is one of the reasons he feels so passionately about trying to identify fakes, which are an increasing problem with the number of new and inexperienced collectors entering the market.

He added: “Now there are so many new collectors and investors coming into the market with very little experience, they have never tried the genuine bottle, so they don’t know what a real one of these tastes like.

“What we don’t want to see happen is the mass-production, when ethanol starts becoming methanol, and you get horrific incidents like Siberia. We do not want to see that start happening. The service we offer is free if people ask us what we think of the bottle. It gives us good insight and intelligence and gives a good sense of where pools of fakes are.”

Known crime gangs in Russia and Ukraine are becoming an increasing concern in the trade of fake whisky, according to the Scotch Whisky Association, which last year revealed it was fighting dozens of legal battles around the world to tackle counterfeiters.

Law enforcement is attempting to address the issue, with batches of counterfeit whisky being seized across the globe as part of operation OPSON run by Interpol and its European equivalent Europol.

A spokeswoman from Europol said: “In 2018, as a part of the OPSON operation, the Colombian police dismantled an organised crime group which counterfeited brands of whiskey and local traditional alcoholic products, by using raw alcohol and caramel essence to colour the counterfeit drink. They bottled the products and distributed them for sale while using fake stamps and counterfeit labels of famous alcohol brands.”

Europol said the most common characteristics seen in counterfeited whisky include the misuse of the description “Scotch Whisky”, as well as fake references to the country of origin – usually Scotland or the UK – and the age of the spirit.

Previous OPSON operations over the past nine years have also uncovered counterfeiter set-ups in Zambia, France and Bulgaria – all of which are suspected to have been run by organised crime gangs.

In 2017, the Metropolitan police smashed a sophisticated fraud operation in Finchley, London, after an auction director raised suspicions about bottles being put up for sale.

Whisky.Auction director Isabel Graham-Yooll launched an investigation and told the police after being contacted about the whisky, and visited the address of the seller pretending to be a prospective buyer.

Following the police raid on the house, she said: “What we saw at the property was a significant collection, hundreds of bottles, of supposedly valuable liquids that if genuine were unlikely to be available on such a scale.”

If sold, and genuine, the haul could have made hundreds of thousands of pounds, the auctioneer said.

The Russian fanatic fighting to save whisky

THE FIGHT to tackle counterfeit whisky stretches far beyond Scotland.

From his home 2000 miles away in Moscow, Scottish whisky fanatic Erkin Tuzmuhamedov is doing his bit to stop fakes from damaging the reputation of his favourite drink.

The teacher and author, who has written seven books about whisky and spirits, said: "I love whisky. The first time I tried it, it was love from first gulp. I had stolen a dram from my father when I was 12.

"I hate fakers, because a lot of people who try fakes think whisky is bad, all because of these counterfeiters.

"Scotch is the best spirit in the world!"

Over the last few years, Tuzmuhamedov has started collecting fake bottles and regularly posts about them on social media.

He also writes about counterfeit operations for whisky publications, and has carried out his own investigations into the extent of fake whisky in his home country of Russia.

He said: "The most popular brands that are counterfeited here are the likes of Johnnie Walker, Chivas, White Horse.

"Lots of them are made in China and Egypt. Some of them don't copy exactly, and are quite funny fakes. I have a few Johnnie Walker Red Table, Black Whaler, Chefas Rijals.

"It is a coloured neutral spirit usually, not grain-based.

"Today fortunately you can't buy these frauds in regular stores now in Russia. The Egais system, a unified system of alcohol sales, is monitoring every step in alcohol sales from producer to retailer. There are no illegal spirits in stores any more."