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.
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.
• 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.