Radiocarbon dating, often called C-14 dating, is something we usually hear about when discussing archaeology and fossils. It uses specialized, sensitive lab equipment to detect tiny traces of specific atoms in a minute sample.
It's also the test that's revealed most 19th century whiskey “relics” to be recently made counterfeits.
Forgers fill their fakes with modern whiskeys. The “smartest” fakers will use a moderately expensive whiskey with some age on it, like 10-20 years. The idea is that even if the bottle is opened, the fake contents still might fool the taster’s senses. But most of these scumbags don't even care what's in their fakes -- because if the bottle is ever opened and tasted, by then the faker is long gone.
A 1 ml sample was extracted and sent to Prof. Gordon Cook's radiocarbon accelerator unit at the University of Glasgow. His lab is reknowned for its experience dating rare spirits -- and fake ones.
Importantly, the Baker's sample was submitted as one of three blind whiskey samples. The other two were "controls" distilled in 1960 and about 2004. But the lab didn't know that -- they simply received samples labeled X, Y, and Z, all to be tested for supposed 19th century distillation.
"Y" was the Baker's. Two months later, Prof. Cook issued a detailed report which concluded:
While these results may sound imprecise, in the small niche where whiskey meets particle accelerators, they are ideal. And, the two control samples were correctly identified as being from their respective time periods.
A second 1 ml sample was sent to the Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit at Oxford. That lab independently replicated Prof. Cook's results, also under the same blind and controlled protocol. Neither lab knew about the other's involvement.
After years of painstaking research, a tiny carbon atom was the giant cherry atop an authentic World's Oldest Whiskey sundae.
NOTE: For an excellent example of how radiocarbon dating should not be used, see our report on the Old Ingledew, a whiskey that Skinner Auctions in Boston "believed" was from the 1700s.