Carbon dating counterfeit whisky
February 4, 2020 11:28 AM   Subscribe

Nuclear fallout exposes fake 'antique' whisky (LiveScience): Nuclear bombs that were detonated decades ago spewed the radioactive isotope carbon-14 into the atmosphere; from there, the isotope was absorbed by plants and other living organisms, and began to decay after the organisms died. Traces of this excess carbon-14 can therefore be found in barley that was harvested and distilled to make whisky. [...] Then, they evaluated allegedly rare whiskeys from 1847 to 1978, and found that nearly half the bottles weren't as old as they were supposed to be. One bottle, a Talisker with a label indicating it was distilled in 1863, was likely distilled between 2007 and 2014. A bottle of Ardbeg from 1964 was probably distilled after 1995, and a Laphroaig labeled 1903 dated to 2011 or later. posted by not_the_water (38 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
Anecdote, but I was at a bar in a hipster hotel in Milwaukee once where they had a whiskey that was made and aged "entirely at sea" as a selling point. As in, processed and aged on a ship.

I don't partake anymore, but some people in general are NUTS about their hooch.
posted by SoberHighland at 11:37 AM on February 4 [3 favorites]


You're probably talking about this whiskey that is aged for a good while on land then 2 more years at sea. As marketing tactics and woo woo factor goes, I'd actually give it a bit of a pass as salt air and lots and lots of movement/sloshing and way more temperature changes than you'd see in a Kentucky aging warehouse are probably going to have more impact on flavor (note that I say impact, not necessarily improvement) than other things.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:54 AM on February 4 [5 favorites]


I dont know about whiskey but aging it on a ship made some EXCELLENT rum
posted by ShawnString at 12:01 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


Anecdote, but I was at a bar in a hipster hotel in Milwaukee once where they had a whiskey that was made and aged "entirely at sea" as a selling point. As in, processed and aged on a ship.


I would be unsurprised if "entirely at sea" actually meant "on a barge that never untied from the docks"
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:04 PM on February 4 [12 favorites]


Carbon dating by using tritium from bombs also proved very useful in advancing our understanding of ocean circulation!
posted by dreyfusfinucane at 12:06 PM on February 4 [10 favorites]


..., I'd actually give it a bit of a pass...

Quite the opposite for me... I find maritime influences benefit whiskies more often than not. Kaiyō whisky is partially aged at sea and quite good. Also, aside from the unique composition of their local peat, the sea air influence on Islay single malts is one of the key influences that makes them so delectable.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:08 PM on February 4 [3 favorites]


One bottle, a Talisker with a label indicating it was distilled in 1863, was likely distilled between 2007 and 2014.

Just a typo.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:08 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


Linie Aquavit has been aged on boats for over 200 years. Silly hipsters.
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:19 PM on February 4 [6 favorites]


Quite the opposite for me... I find maritime influences benefit whiskies more often than not.

Sorry, my wording is poor, I agree with you totally. I think it likely has an impact and that impact could likely be positive. I meant to give any kneejerk marketing skepticism a pass perhaps.
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:23 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


I would be unsurprised if "entirely at sea" actually meant "on a barge that never untied from the docks"

Well, that's not actually the case unless you think some information they release is a total lie, which, well businesses gonna business but

...sail around the world for six months

In that time the ship zigzagged across the globe, stopping at 31 ports and crossing the equator four times
*
posted by RolandOfEld at 12:27 PM on February 4


No worries! And I understand... I had the same response to the release of the Jefferson's actually b/c the price increase seemed disproportionate so it felt a bit gimmicky right out of the gate.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:29 PM on February 4


This manner of fraud detection has been going on in the wine world for awhile too. At least 5% (and I'd wager a whole lot more) of all the supposedly existing pre-phylloxera epidemic wine out there is really some bullshit blend that was actually bottled in the last few years (most famously the counterfeit Thomas Jefferson collection).
posted by joechip at 12:34 PM on February 4 [5 favorites]


I may not have read the article carefully enough, but is the implication here that nefarious counterfeiters are making fake old bottles, or that distillers are mislabeling products as having been aged longer than they really were?

I.e. are we talking about 50-year-old bottles of 12-year or six-month-old bottles of 50-year?
posted by Krawczak at 12:41 PM on February 4


I may not have read the article carefully enough, but is the implication here that nefarious counterfeiters are making fake old bottles, or that distillers are mislabeling products as having been aged longer than they really were?

These are usually bottles in the secondary market - auctions or private collections or that sort of thing, not from the distillers, except in some cases where the distiller has bought them back only to discover they are fake. Once they're in the secondary market and they lose a clear chain of custody, many owners of the bottles may not know they're fake.

It's been a big problem even in the secondary bourbon market, where winkle and BTAC bottles can go for thousands of dollars and they are sort of easy to fake.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:49 PM on February 4


Pretty sure it's counterfeiting bottles, not lying about the aging.

(Carbon dating shouldn't really be able to tell 50 year whisky bottled six years ago from 6 year whisky bottled fifty years ago, but you'd hope anyone drinking it would be able to discern the difference between six and fifty years in cask.)
posted by Dysk at 12:51 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


6 year whisky bottled fifty years ago

I would think using a time machine would impact the flavor
posted by emjaybee at 12:57 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]


I attended a tasting a number of years ago that featured whiskies from around the time of the Prohibition. I think it was 7 bottles total including one pre-prohibition bottle.

Most or all of those could've been fake. Though for one of the bottles the cork literally disintegrated into cork powder the instance it was pulled on. I've seen my share of corks crumble partially or completely but never pulverize. So I'm thinking chances are pretty good that at least that one was legit.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 12:58 PM on February 4


6 year whisky bottled fifty years ago

I would think using a time machine would impact the flavor


What?
posted by ODiV at 1:12 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


The "age" of a whiskey stops when it's bottled.

So a bottle of whiskey aged in cask for 6 years bottled 50 years ago vs. a bottle of whiskey aged in cask for 50 years and bottled 6 years ago.
posted by porpoise at 1:42 PM on February 4 [4 favorites]


So would it be correct to say casks modify the flavor through chemicals they give/remove and through evaporation, and glass bottles and corks don't, except to the extent that temperature and light changes can effect the bottle? Or does peat water and other ingredients continue to modify flavors in the bottle?

Anyway I remember the radioactive testing being a thing for wine for a while (I think there was even a leverage episode that touched on it).
posted by gryftir at 1:59 PM on February 4


Bottle aging isn't generally a thing with whisky (hence why the age given in the bottle is how long it has spent in cask).
posted by Dysk at 2:33 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


And yes, my previous example used two lots of whisky distilled 56 years ago, the difference is the time in cask vs bottle.
posted by Dysk at 2:36 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


Gryftir, that's more or less correct. Due to the high alcohol content bottled whisky is rather stable unless exposed to light and heat. The high concentration of ethanol prevents oxidation at the rate you'd see in wine. However, it does still take place, just very, very slowly.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:37 PM on February 4


The rate of change in bottled whisky is somewhat hard to estimate because there really isn't any data about the exact chemical make-up of whiskies bottled a long time ago that could be compared to what's in surviving bottles. More recently I'm sure some distilleries are collecting such data but I'd be surprised if anybody did this more than 15-20 years ago.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 2:51 PM on February 4


But what about 50 bottles of one-year old whiskey? I mean, that's a total of 50 bottle-years!

As for taking your tipple to sea, that's how they once made Madeira wine [from Wikipedia]:

The islands of Madeira have a long winemaking history, dating back to the Age of Exploration (approximately from the end of the 15th century) when Madeira was a standard port of call for ships heading to the New World or East Indies. To prevent the wine from spoiling, neutral grape spirits were added. On the long sea voyages, the wines would be exposed to excessive heat and movement which transformed the flavour of the wine. This was discovered by the wine producers of Madeira when an unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands after a round trip.
posted by chavenet at 3:54 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


Sea also: IPA, which is supposed to cross the ocean by sail before you crack it open. It's not supposed to taste all “This horse should not be raced.”
posted by scruss at 4:31 PM on February 4 [2 favorites]


It is a little tangential to the conversation, but it seems as if this is a place I can get an answer to a question that has been bothering me for a while. I think it is more of an economics question but...

When a company is making say Scotch or Whiskey and they sell 12 year or 25 year versions, how do they know or how did they know say 25 years ago (or more) how much scotch/whiskey to make to meet demand?

I now understand that say the 12 year Maccallan, could have been made 20 years ago and sitting in a bottle for 8 years, but someone, at one time, had to make estimates on how much to make to meet demand 12, 20, 25 years out. It becomes a very long tail in time to adjust if you make too little (price goes up?) or too much (bottle it and let some of the next year's batch sit longer?). If demand appears slower than expected, do you just keep the alcohol in the casks for 3, or 8 or however many years and turn it from what was intended as a 12 year into a 15 year or longer?
posted by AugustWest at 5:54 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


You might save some over in casks and blend it in to your 12 year later down the line - the age given us a minimum, and there's often some older whisky mixed in for flavour consistency or logistical reasons (usually both). You might also bottle it and warehouse the bottles, depending on what your warehousing setup is like. But the logistics of the long lead time is one of the major challenges in producing aged spirits, and is a big part of why there are comparatively few independent distilleries really producing at scale.
posted by Dysk at 6:21 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


The truth no one will say is that the whiskey business is controlled by time travelers.
posted by bigbigdog at 6:40 PM on February 4 [6 favorites]


The "massively increasing interest in the purchase of these rare products as investments" is just more of that post-2008 soft money floating around looking for a home, isn't it? In which case, who cares if the whisky's really that old? So long as no-one finds out, your investment's safe, and you're not inflating house prices in cities.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 7:32 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


AugustWest - they don't. It's all done on-spec.

You also have to juggle warehousing space for the caskets - the immediate environment affects the aging process. You don't want your whiskey sucking up diesel exhaust or cow pasture effluvia.

You also won't know how a year will turn out, you might end up with something you need to blend up, or you might end up with something great enough to blend up less good batches with. Of course, you sample a little every year to get a feel for the trajectory of a particular casking.

The reason why the expensive whiskeys are expensive is the high degree of consistency from year to year.

Also, when starting out a whiskey distillery, most jurisdictions won't let you legally call it a whiskey if it hasn't been aged a minimum of 3 or 5 years. I know a distillery out on Vancouver Island that just started out - to generate a little revenue they sold triple distilled "wheat vodka" straight and in various flavours. I liked it quite it bit, very fruity like a sake but vodka strong.

I visited in year 3 and got to sample from a barrel; had to cut it down from the high-50 percent with water and it was... ok, but could definitely benefit from a little more aging. They were planning a minimum of 5 but set aside "a good chunk" of it for 12 and "a little bit" for longer.
posted by porpoise at 9:39 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


In the '80s supply vastly outstripped demand, and the result was the 'whisky loch'.
posted by Standard Orange at 10:58 PM on February 4 [1 favorite]


There are similar issues with steel. With there being a market for steel forged prior to 1945 for use in sensors and some medical equipment.

Fortunately we had the foresight to store a LOT of steel under the sea just before 1945 for this very purpose*

*Not for this purpose
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 2:51 AM on February 5 [4 favorites]


Luxury fraud like this is by far my favorite kind of crime.

Selling some asshole a fake Mona Lisa while telling him the one in the Louvre is fake? King shit.
Getting some idiot to hand over $100,000 for a 10 year old bottle of whisky/wine that you just changed the label on? Absolutely based.

Sure, these aren't victimless crimes, but I find it hard to sympathize with the victim. If you have that kind of money to spend on really old alcohol you probably aren't even going to drink, then we're not taxing you enough.
posted by dis_integration at 7:36 AM on February 5 [10 favorites]


I can't imagine aging whisky at sea is markedly different than aging it a few meters away from the sea, which is the case for most of the big Islay and Skye distilleries.
posted by rocket88 at 9:01 AM on February 5


At sea you have to deal with the mermaids and the krakens. If you’re right on the water, then yeah you have some mermaid issues. But it’s the kraken battles that provide that “at sea” sensation we all love.
posted by bigbigdog at 9:31 AM on February 5 [3 favorites]


The history of IPA is more complicated than the whole ship-to-india thing. The blog Zythophile has done some great research on this. Maybe I should make it a FPP…
posted by caphector at 11:59 AM on February 5 [2 favorites]


bigbigdog: "But it’s the kraken battles that provide that “at sea” sensation we all love."

Yo ho ho and all that.
posted by chavenet at 4:03 PM on February 5


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