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.