Debunking the Supposedly-Ancient Ingledew Whiskey

Skinner Auctions' whiskey specialist called the news "earth shattering," but the reality is mundane.

What we might call "The Ingledew Dating Method" is a quirk of science that can be similarly performed with other old whiskeys and wines.
Auctioneer's assessment that the whiskey was produced circa the late 1700s.

Headline from Skinner website states a belief ascribed to no actual person.On June 30, Skinner Auctions in Boston sold what was promoted as “Old Ingledew Whiskey: Currently Believed to be the Oldest Known Whiskey in Existence.” The auctioneer assessed “the whiskey was produced circa the late 1700s.” No other whiskeys are remotely that old.


Two months later, the bottle was sold at auction for $137,500, setting a new record for American whiskey pricing.

The auctioneer's now-famous announcement features a radiocarbon dating analysis which, to the average person, might sound impressive. However, 18th century test results are a peculiarity that is common when carbon-dating old whiskeys (which of course do not really date from the 18th century). In essence, carbon dating gives many "possible times" a whiskey might date from, usually patches of years ranging from 1650 to 1954. It is up to the recipient of those results (not scientists) to decide how to apply them to their whiskey. Prior to the Ingledew bottle, 18th century dating results have been ignored by whiskey experts as inaccurate and basically impossible.

The auctioneer cherry-picked the most favorable parts of their lab data, and exploited that to support a massive sale.

Detailed report exposing the problems of the whiskey claim. Screenshot.The PDF report linked here, Ingledew Exposed, is a deep dive explaining the problems with the auctioneer's assessment, including some of the highly unlikely and even ridiculous theories required to explain how such a whiskey could exist, plus some interesting tidbits of American whiskey history and more.


For those interested in the science the auctioneer used and some related facts (the 10 page report contains a fuller explanation):

 

• The glass bottle itself can be dated to circa 1868 - 1876, due to the documented history of the merchant who sold it in LaGrange, GA.

• The auctioneer’s dating assessment and headline revolve around two pieces of radiocarbon data showing a “53.1% probability” and a “42.9% probability" the whiskey was distilled between 1760 - 1803. As mentioned, test results showing 18th century possibilities are fairly common for old whiskeys (specifically whiskeys distilled before 1955).

• In other words, questionable radiocarbon data that is "much too old" for a whiskey bottle is not unusual. What is questionable and extremely unusual is the use of such data to support a record-setting sale.

• The scientific analyses the auctioneer received also showed the bottle could be filled with whiskey from 1929 - 1954, which would make the bottle a refill, i.e. an old bottle that was refilled or topped-off with new whiskey sometime in the mid 20th century. The possibilities of that were not fully explained in the auctioneer's press release.

• The probabilities in carbon dating whiskey aren't like real-world probabilities. They are hypotheticals based on computer models. So a “50% dating probability” is not like the observable 50% chances of a coin flip. As a demonstration of that: it is not uncommon for some old whiskeys to receive around a 25% "chance" that they are from 1650 to 1699. But the reality of a whiskey actually being from those years is virtually impossible, given various historic factors. Yet with "chances" around 25%, we'd expect least a handful of whiskeys to exist that actually are from the 17th century. They do not.

• A “starting from scratch” investigation might show the circa 1870 glass bottle contains whiskey that is period-correct, i.e. whiskey distilled around that era.

• In open disclosure, I (Adam) own the genuine, rigorously evaluated, and proven “oldest whiskey” (1847). Authentication took four years of working with Guinness World Records, independent whiskey 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 research. For the 1847 whiskey, radiocarbon testing also "dated" it to the 18th century: the years 1715 - 1785, with a 44.7% chance. That was the "best chance" and highest probability of all. That is higher than Skinner’s original 42.9% result for their whiskey, and not much less than the 53.1% statistic they listed in the auction. Carbon dating results must be applied very carefully and viewed in context of all other evidence.
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