New Oldest Whisky? It's Marketing, Not Science
DEEP DIVE by Adam Herz
- WhiskyAuctioneer's “1833” dating claim relied on a paper-and-wood placard said to have been found near the bottles, but there is no verifiable link to the bottles themselves.
- The auction house’s publicity implied their dating assessment was strongly supported by scientific testing, which it was not.
- At least one purported scientific "fact" appeared to have been invented during marketing.
- The auction house's method used to "confirm" the bottles all contained identical whiskey was highly unreliable.
- Despite WhiskyAuctioneer's specialist not believing some of the consignor's claims, those claims were published anyway.
- After we contacted WhiskyAuctioneer, they revised and retracted some statements.
- When VinePair investigated, WhiskyAuctioneer acknowledged "We have confidence in the glass and seal, but nothing else is really provable."
- Whisky industry archivist, author, and historian Dr. Nick Morgan also published a lengthy criticism of WhiskyAuctioneer’s dubious claims, including some not covered here.
This September, WhiskyAuctioneer (the largest spirits auction house by volume) announced the “World’s Oldest Scotch Whisky.” 24 bottles are up for auction this month.
But the dating couldn't be proven. Yet WhiskyAuctioneer’s publicity made it sound like science, peppered with conflicting claims, misleading language, and guesswork.
That's not just bad for whisky. It's bad for history.
The story went like this: 40 bottles of whisky were discovered in a basement storage room at an old castle in Scotland. A piece of paper on a wooden placard found near the bottles listed 1833 distillation, 1841 bottling, and rebottling in 1932. Scientific testing provided a high probability the liquid was from the early 19th century, and archival documentation backed it too. 24 of the 40 bottles are up for auction this month.
It sounds convincing on the surface.
WhiskyAuctioneer’s announcement started off on the right foot, using the word “belief” to describe the dating. Beliefs are opinions. Feelings. Anyone is free to believe anything.
But the “belief” sounded scientifically proven, or at least strongly backed, with details like “...authentication of the whisky by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre via carbon dating supports its early 19th century origin.”
Note the word “authentication” and the unambiguous language: it simply is early 19th century whisky and radiocarbon science supports it.
To know how misleading that was required expertise in ultra-vintage whisky authentication and the intricacies of radiocarbon data. Even in the whisky world, there are only a handful of us with that knowledge. That’s probably why worldwide press coverage often treated it as fact. For instance, Forbes was led to report, “The liquid was subsequently tested and determined to have been distilled back in 1833, making it the oldest known scotch in existence.”
But that’s nonsense. Carbon dating isn’t remotely that accurate.
The truth was this: the spirit was confirmed as being made between 1650 and 1955. That’s it.
That’s virtually the same carbon dating result you’ll get for every old whisky (pre-1955). The test will confirm the same 300-year window.
So, sure, the carbon dating “supports” 1833 distillation — as much as it supports 1953, 1943, or New Year’s Eve 1699.
Is that “authentication?"
A SCIENTIFIC “HIGH PROBABILITY” APPEARS MADE-UP...
WhiskyAuctioneer’s announcement further claimed the carbon dating "provided a high probability that the whisky is of early 19th century origin.”
But did it really?
How could WhiskyAuctioneer know that, given the 300-year carbon dating window? The lab report they received contained no such probabilities.
I asked WhiskyAuctioneer's specialist where the "high probability" came from. He replied, "...I think it is most likely due to a misreading of the graph [referring to their lab data/report]... I'm not sure at present who wrote it [the high probability quote] but I have flagged it to our comms team for a rewrite."
Consider how irresponsible it would be for a major auction house, seen as an authority, to "misread" key science in a way that supports the claim they're pushing in worldwide publicity to boost their auction -- and their profits.
The specialist's confusion about the source of the "high probability" is dubious to begin with, because he used the same language himself when discussing the whisky.
In a podcast he explained, “The results came back, it gives you a probability, and within that probability there was a high chance that the whisky was distilled within that 1833 vintage range.”
He doubled-down, reiterating “It gave us a high probability that it is what we think it is."
...AND THE REAL PROBABILITY IS TERRIBLE
There is an actual scientific way to calculate that probability. It’s not reliable for precise dating of whisky, and experts ignore it. But since the auction house brought it up...
Oxford University’s OxCal software is used primarily for radiocarbon science. We can input this whisky's actual test result (called the "F14C") into OxCal to get raw data for specific years within the larger 300-year span.
For 1801 to 1840 -- generously "early 19th century" -- the probability comes out to about 17%.
For the 1830s specifically, probability is about 5%.
TWO BIG QUESTIONS, TWO BAD ANSWERS
When WhiskyAuctioneer’s announcement was published, I emailed them two questions:
1. How did they know the 1833/1841 dating placard referred to these 40 bottles?
The specialist didn't answer that directly, but the gist was this: “The 1833 vintage we are unable to categorically confirm” but he felt the evidence was “favourable.”
2. How was it determined that all the bottles contain the same distillate?
No. 2 is critical because these are all homemade bottlings. There are no labels or embossing. The bottles could contain varying distillates (i.e. every few bottles hold something different), be blends, or be topped-off somethings.
The specialist wrote back, “…we have now opened five [bottles] and can confirm that they all did contain the same liquid.”
Okay, but how was that confirmed? Extensive lab work would make sense. Whereas “taste authentication” is generally an unreliable fallacy. So I asked what the confirmation method was.
It was indeed taste authentication, and a bizarre version -- because the bottles didn't all taste the same.
5 bottles were tasted. 2 were deemed not “satisfactory” or not “exemplary" (i.e. they tasted not so great). The specialist said the worse ones were due to excessively low fill/evaporation (all the bottles have generally low fill). It's hard to believe WhiskyAuctioneer found a taster who can reliably palate-verify whisky that has undergone flavor changes, but if so, I'd love to see a demonstration in a proper blind tasting.
None of the bottles for sale have been tested in a lab -- or mouth -- at all.
HOW WAS THE 1833 DATE CHOSEN & HOW WERE THE BOTTLES DISCOVERED?
At Blair Castle in Scotland, the resident trustee (guy in charge who lives there) was said to have found the 1833 dating paper/placard near the bottles when he “discovered” them last year in a small storage room containing other old bottles of alcohol, other alcohol-related placards, modern Christmas decorations, and other various items WhiskyAuctioneer wasn’t sure of.
One placard read: WHISKEY, CASK. 1833, BOT. 1841, REBOT. 1932, SMALL STILL, BIN 17. (“Rebot” = “Rebottled”).
But the paper/placard can’t be verifiably linked to these bottles, or any bottles. And there's an extensive history of whisky at the castle, according to the castle themselves.
Old notes and stories accompanying old bottles are notoriously unreliable. Details get unintentionally forgotten, changed, and embellished as decades pass. (Examples are the Mellon Overholts letter and the typewritten note attached to the debunked “late 1700s” Ingledew Whiskey).
Who wrote that dating placard? What were they relying on? Records, since lost? A story they'd heard? If the placard was the culmination of a multi-generational game of "telephone," the whisky's true nature could've been easily confused.
If you dug into the publicity deep enough, the resident trustee explained that his mother already knew there were old bottles of alcohol in an “unassuming cellar room.” She just didn’t know old booze could be valuable. But as a podcaster pointed out, “‘Discovery’ sounds so much better than ‘We just lost track of the inventory.'”
WhiskyAuctioneer's specialist replied to that with a laugh, “That’s why we’re sticking with it!”
Marketing trumps transparency.
The timing of the “discovery” was also curious. It occurred last year, soon after Blair Castle undertook a large expansion and rebuilding campaign. They want to increase tourism from the current 142,000 visitors per year and are creating an exhibition around the whisky.
IS GLASS DATING HELPFUL HERE?
No. These are homemade rebottlings done in 1932 (according to the story), so the glass bottles themselves are irrelevant. As WhiskyAuctioneer’s specialist explained on a podcast: “Whether they [the bottles used in 1932] were selected to give a kind of aesthetic that befit their vintage, I’m not sure.” Meaning, these bottles could’ve been chosen in 1932 just because they looked really old and cool.
IS THE DATING SUPPORTED BY ARCHIVES AND DOCUMENTATION?
WhiskyAuctioneer refers to “bin books” and estate logs which document that a cask of whisky existed at the estate in 1834, and that bottles of whisky existed there in 1844.
But so what? It’s hardly unique that whisky existed at a wealthy Scottish castle in the mid 19th century. (If you're picturing a stone fortress out of the “Highlander” movie, Blair Castle looks more like a very big house with turrets). As WhiskyAuctioneer’s promotional video explained, “Whisky has always been a huge part of the history of Blair Castle.”
That means these bottles could contain whisky from a huge range of time.
I explained that to WhiskyAuctioneer’s specialist. His response was that he feels there is not an extensive history of whisky at Blair Castle. Or at least, there’s not good documentation of it.
But if that's true, why does the marketing say that Blair Castle has “one of the best archives of any historic house in Scotland?”
They can’t have it both ways. There can’t be an extensive history of whisky there and great documentation of it – but also not.
When I pointed out those contradictions, the specialist explained the claims about the castle as "marketing shtick" -- a publicity angle by the Blair Castle folks to boost the estate's image. Which WhiskyAuctioneer apparently perpetuated.
So that would mean:
1. We should put faith in the stories the castle has told about these specific bottles and their discovery, but…
2. We should not believe other claims the castle has made about the history of whisky there. Or their descriptions of their records.
Surely, you see the problem.
WHEN MARKETING CLOUDS REALITY
Even for a deep dive, we’re leaving things unexplored. For instance, WhiskyAuctioneer emailed a “discovery video” (their term) to potential buyers. But it’s not how the bottles were actually "discovered" -- which was actually behind modern Christmas decorations (according to the specialist). The video is a fantasy interpretation. It also shows distilling equipment at the castle... which wouldn’t have been used to make 1833 "small still" whisky.
It's hard to argue that historical accuracy didn't take a back seat to marketing and publicity.
REVISIONS AND BACKPEDALING
On October 31, I had a long Zoom with WhiskyAuctioneer’s specialist (whom I found to be smart, cordial, understanding, and uncontentious). After going through much of the above, I explained that as much as I like WhiskyAuctioneer (which is quite a lot), it was my obligation to publish a report.
After that, on November 3rd, tiny changes appeared on WhiskyAuctioneer’s page about the whisky. Four sentences that previously expressed confidence were changed to include "possibly," “could be,” “potentially,” and “if.” A phrase about the archives of Blair Castle and Atholl Estates was cut.
A week later, WhiskyAuctioneer published a new article titled, “How Do We Authenticate What’s Believed to be the World’s Oldest Whisky?”
“Authenticate” is still the word they use, but the crux is: “Without better archival evidence to corroborate the 1833 vintage stated by the plaque found with the whisky, this sadly cannot be confirmed. What we do know, however, is that this is a very, very old Scotch whisky.”
It’s an improvement, although how they're certain it's very, very old whisky isn’t so clear. The article is full of overwrought language like “research has enabled us to build a case by which we have been able to alleviate certain doubts," which appears to refer to things like counterfeiting and post-1955 spirit.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN NOBODY BLOWS THE WHISTLE?
If I’d never spoken with WhiskyAuctioneer, would their press bonanza remain unchallenged and uncorrected? (I also alerted them I'd been contacted by journalists asking for interviews).
Even with WhiskyAuctioneer's revisions and new article, confusing and misleading publicity remains in their videos, other articles, interviews, and media coverage. That's what drives buyers to the auction.
WhiskyAuctioneer told me the auction page itself will stick to facts and say “circa 1833." But is "approximately 1833" better or worse? The very first auction I exposed (in 2012 at Bonhams NY) featured a rare scotch dated "circa 1900." It was actually from the later 1930s.
WHAT DO I THINK THESE ACTUALLY ARE?
If the bottles all have identical contents, then it's whisky made in Scotland, probably in the region of Blair Castle, likely in the 19th century. Judging from the publicity photos, there are no signs of counterfeiting (especially since the bottles don't self-purport to be anything). I don't see any indications that these can't be 1930s-bottled. They're also very cool.
Is “circa 1833” possible? Yes. Is it probable? Without better evidence, all I can do is shrug. It’s an exciting option.
Historic claims should be presented with transparency and accuracy. Whisky deserves it, history deserves it, and you deserve it.
Comments and discussion at Herz's Serious Whiskey Info.
IN OPEN TRANSPARENCY: I own the rigorously evaluated, highly documented, and proven “oldest whiskey” (Baker’s Pure Rye 1847). A detailed report has been online for years, for those interested. Authentication took four years of working with Guinness World Records, independent whisk(e)y experts from around the world, a US glass historian, rare book libraries, two carbon dating labs (Oxford and Glasgow) using double-blind and controlled protocols, and other painstaking research. I’m aware that can cause confirmation bias and I strive to minimize it. I'm also a huge aficionado of ultra-vintage spirits and support them (and buy them) when verifiable. Owning and authenticating super-old spirits + having expertise in whisky carbon dating is both chicken and egg of how I know so much about this topic -- and how to recognize BS.