Janet Patton, of the Lexington Herald Leader newspaper, recently wrote an article about counterfeit bottles of Blanton’s Bourbon being sold on the market. This is not a new problem. There have been counterfeit bottles of whiskey since the time that distillers started bottling whiskey. There is profit to be made selling expensive and popular whiskey brands and people are going to fake bottles to earn that profit. I thought I would take a look at the history of counterfeit bottles.
James E. Pepper had a problem with counterfeit bottles in the 1890s. That is why he developed a stamp with his signature on it to seal the bottle across the cork. He then started advertising that the consumer should look at this seal and if it had been broken in any way, to avoid purchasing the bottle because it might not be real James E. Pepper whiskey. This inspired the government tax stamp to seal the bottle when the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 was passed. The tax stamp served two things – it showed that the taxes were paid and sealed the bottle to prevent fake bottles. Other distillers had the problem of fake whiskey labels with their brand names on them. That is why they developed elaborate labels that would be hard to duplicate on the cheap. Counterfeit whiskey bottles hurt the brand because they not only caused the distiller to lose the money from the sale, but also hurt the reputation of the brand when inferior whiskey was in the fraudulent bottle.
Prohibition brought organized crime into the whiskey business and the black market was flooded with fake whiskey bottles. This was often a very dangerous proposition as the organized crime gangs were not picky about what they put into the bottles. The most popular way to fake the whiskey then, as today, is to refill an empty bottle with cheap whiskey. During Prohibition the whiskey being used was often moonshine made without the proper cuts and could lead to blindness, nerve damage or even death. This was harder to prove in the times past, but with chemical analysis improving, it is easier for distillers to prove counterfeit bottles today.
Post Prohibition, the problem became less of a problem, but still existed. There was plenty of whiskey on the market at reasonable prices and there was less money to be made in counterfeit bottles. As whiskey sales declined, this made counterfeiting bottles even less of a problem in the United States, but it remained a problem with some brands overseas. Jack Daniels always had a problem with counterfeits of their popular brand overseas.
With the whiskey boom of the 21st century, counterfeit bottles are once again a growing problem. The internet sales of whiskey has compounded the problem. I have always been suspicious of the empty bottles being sold on eBay for large amounts of money. Empty bottles of Pappy Van Winkle, Blanton’s and other popular brands are selling for prices that are ridiculous and I suspect most of those bottles are being purchased to fake the whiskey for resale. Let the buyer beware of the secondary market.
Counterfeit bottles of whiskey is a growing problem. The distilleries have always had a problem with their brands being counterfeited and have taken steps to prevent it. It is a very profitable thing to sell a fake bottle of whiskey and it will remain a problem. My advice is to purchase your whiskey from a local liquor store that you trust and to be wary of bottles sold on the black market.
February 13, 2023 at 5:08 pm
Once, when researching, had come across an early 1900’s ad which read:
The “Old Lexington Club” Whiskey
“There is not a finer Sour Mash Whiskey made in the state of Kentucky.
Be sure to get the “Old Lexington Club,” as the Kentucky Distilleries & Warehouse Co., which is commonly known as the Trust, is putting up a brand they call “Lexington Club,” at their Boone County Distillery, Petersburg, Ky. They simply drop the word “OLD” and put the words “Lexington Club” on the commercial end and sell same for less money. There is only one “Old Lexington Club Distillery,” which is located at Nicholasville, Ky., and the warehouses are heated with steam. Sold in bulk and bottled in bond.”
February 14, 2023 at 4:27 am
Mike, your value to the American whiskey scene cannot be understated. We are all in debt to your knowledge, research, and insight. That said, this statement is problematic: “The distilleries have always had a problem with their brands being counterfeited and have taken steps to prevent it.”
What steps have they taken in our modern era, now?
The elephant in the room is that while we may all have friends in ‘Big Bourbon’ and want the best for their industry, anti-faking efforts in the industry are severely lacking (with very few exceptions). Rather than point out all the easy-to-fake releases, whether they’re cheap or a fortune, it’s easier to ask: what are the bottles that have *any* real anti-counterfeiting measures? And what kind of responsibility have distilleries like Buffalo Trace taken when it comes to helping ensure their own materials aren’t used to make counterfeits of their own products?
The answers aren’t good.
All collectors markets have fakes; the problem of counterfeits is not unique to bourbon simply because secondary markets exist. At some point, the makers of highly-coveted products need to acknowledge that their biggest fans indeed will buy, sell, trade, and collect those products — and that as manufacturers, those companies have an inherent responsibility to ensure that I can’t spend fifty cents to perfectly replicate their product as a fake.