By Richard Thomas
If you mention the term “fake whiskey” in American whiskey circles, more likely than not you’ll find yourself in a conversation about labeling issues and so-called “Potemkin distilleries.” Yet to a broader set of whiskey fans, the term might refer to a far more disturbing trend, that of the rise of truly questionable and in some cases downright fake whiskey products.
Fakes From Down Under?
On the questionable side, Australia’s plunge into whiskey-making has taken some producers away from their Scottish and Irish roots and towards American methods, with some producers experimenting with rye, bourbon and sour mash whiskey. Yet some of these American-style products are released at a proof lower than what is legally acceptable in the United States, raising the question of whether it is “fake” American-style whiskey.
The problem with applying that label to Australian bourbon is that said watered down whiskeys are merely following the pattern established by American whiskey imports. Jim Beam White is cut to 37% abv (74 proof) in Australia, below the U.S. statutory 40% minimum. Maker’s Mark also cuts its whiskey for the Australian market, from the American standard of 45% abv to 40%.
So long as the underpowered American-style Australian whiskey stays in Australia and is otherwise made in the American style, it seems unjust to call it fake merely because some of it follows in American footsteps.
Indian Non-Whisky In Europe
Far more alarming than the minor quibble over Australian abv levels is the way products labeled “whisky” in India are finding their way onto European shelves, despite the European Union officially upholding Scottish definitions for what whisky is supposed to be.
Although India draws a whisky-drinking tradition from the days of the British Raj, the country has no legal definitions for what whisky is or how it is made. Because of this, most Indian whisky brands are usually a blend of a rum-like distillate with a small proportion of imported Scottish malt whisky. With just a few exceptions, such as Amrut, most Indian whisky would never pass muster in Europe, Japan, or North America.
This would be only slightly disturbing if the Indian non-whisky stayed in India. Yet according to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the trade group that represents Scotch industry interests, the last several years have seen a growing amount of Indian “whisky” imported into Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Spain, where it is blended again with more grain and/or malt whisky from Scotland. It is then sold in a variety of cheap supermarket brands, sometimes claiming to be “Scotch” and sometimes merely as “whisky,” when at least a hefty proportion of the product is neither Scotch or whisky.
What’s In A Name?
If Americans think they have a labeling problem, they should look at some of the labels going on bottles in India and China, designed to fool drinkers into thinking the contents are pricey Scottish imports. Last year the SWA filed 103 trademark disputes, with 19 in India and 17 in China. Other major offenders included Nepal, Nigeria and South Africa.
The typical offense is a brand name using the word “Glen,” which according to the SWA is strongly suggestive of a Scottish origin. Falsely labeled, non-bourbon products are beginning to appear abroad as well, complete with fake names conjuring images of the Bluegrass.
Although it has brought shortages and rising prices, overall the world whiskey boom has been a good thing for drinkers, since it has also brought with it a wave of new products and a spirit of innovation. At the same time, a big chunk of that boom has taken place in foreign markets where whiskey laws are weak or non-existent, and trademark protections are only slightly better. Low standards have given rise to a crop of frauds producing non-whiskey products under misleading names, and now some of those fake whiskeys are starting to find their way onto store shelves in places where drinkers expect better.