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Inside the Unsavory World of Counterfeit Whisky

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When whisky isn't whisky.


It's the start of a night out in Thailand, after another afternoon well spent meandering crowded streets and historic wats in search of street food. Seated at a short, white plastic table in a dimly lit soiperhaps in Bangkok, Chiang Mai or wherever elseit's time for a drink, and beyond the ubiquitous Chang and Singha beers, the menu offers little in the realm of alcoholic refreshment.

Wait, there's whisky listed on there, too, Mekhong and SangSom. For a couple hundred Thai Baht—a few American dollars—one can order a bottle of booze that comes with a few mixers and a bucket of ice for D-I-Y cocktailing. Yet, neither spirit is whisky. At all. Mekhong and SangSom might be listed on Thai menus and described colloquially as such, but they're actually "golden spirits" in the rum family, distilled from some combination of sugar cane, molasses and rice, with plenty of added coloring and flavor thrown in along the way. A quick sip of SangSom will reveal a musky, teeth-rottingly-sugary spirit reminiscent of the cheap booze that enthusiastic underage revelers who don't know any better may pick up in a plastic handle for a house party.

Both Mekhong and SangSom are made by ThaiBev, Thailand's largest beverage conglomerate. And to be fair, they aren't labeled as whisky on the bottle. SangSom is labeled as rum, while Mekhong is described as "The Spirit of Thailand," but at bars across the country they're most commonly and simply considered whisky. The reason behind it is simple—there's big money to be made with whisky, even when only from casual association. The spirit, along with its imposters, has never been more prominent or popular the world over.

...there's big money to be made with whisky, even when only from casual association.

With Mekhong and SangSom, there may be some consumer confusion from tourists until that first sip reveals the truth of the matter, but there's no actual fraud taking place. Misconceptions abound, to be sure, but nothing illicit or illegal.

However, Mekhong and SangSom are prominent examples of the burgeoning global marketplace for whisky that isn't whisky. A lack of consumer knowledge in some parts of the world, perhaps buoyed further by such confusion, enables a thriving counterfeit marketplace, and the money to be made is appealing enough for any illicit entrepreneur to be spurred to action.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) reported £3.95 billion in exports in 2014, and Thailand ranks prominently amongst its recipients as the second leading whisky market in Asia. In 2012, the last year for which country by country statistics are currently available, Thailand imported nearly £39 million in Scotch, representing over 9.4 million LPA (liters of pure alcohol).

If a traveler were to look beyond Mekhong and SangSom on that back alley Thai restaurant's "whisky" list, the most common choices found across Thailand, from personal experience, are likely to be Johnnie Walker's Red and Black labels. He or she could therefore skip the circumspect Thai "whisky" entirely and opt for something familiar, choosing instead to order up some Black on the cheap.

Not so fast. Reports indicate that as much as 12 million liters of counterfeit whiskey hit the Thai market annually. So who's to say whether that Black label is even authentic or not? Whether it's Thai "whisky," or "Johnnie Walker Black," in either instance, the spirit being consumed may actually be far from advertised.

Of course, Thailand isn't the only culprit here. Counterfeit whiskey is a major problem all across the globe. In 2014, a report showcased that the SWA officially filed 103 trademark objections within the previous year. India and China were the two largest offenders, with 19 and 17, respectively.

...in Thailand or China or India, more lax regulations ... mean that all sorts of spirits could get slapped with a "whisky" label while being far from it.

One issue is that many countries don't hold up Geographical Indication standards set forth by the Scotch industry. In the European Union, for instance, "Scotch whisky" can only be legally listed on the label of a bottle if it meets certain standards and comes from the right place. But in Thailand or China or India, more lax regulations or enforcement of regulations mean that all sorts of spirits could get slapped with a "whisky" label while being far from it.

In China, that may be in the form of sorghum "whisky," while in India, cheap spirits might be blended with a touch of good stuff and packaged with knockoff labels, so the purchaser still thinks he has Chivas Regal or Glenfiddich.

Even if the buyer knows better though, he could at least pass it off to others that he's drinking one of those well known brands. This consumer favoritism towards prestigious names and brands is also thanks to the international fervor for anything and everything whisky. Just as a knockoff Louis Vuitton handbag purchased in New York City's Chinatown allows the buyer to showcase that brand name status symbol and appeal, pouring from a bottle of Johnnie Walker comes with a certain cachet, too. The buyer might know it's fake, but will anybody else who's seeing it?

It's not only Scotch which has been affected, of course. In Australia, there have been producers illegally labeling booze as bourbon. Additionally, different regulations allow "whisky" in the country to be sold below the typical minimum standard of 80 proof (40 percent ABV).

Interestingly, counterfeit whisky doesn't just stay in its country of origin, flooding the local market with fakes. It's actually exported and sold in Europe and other marketplaces, either with knockoff packaging, or as cheap off-label brands found in supermarkets. There are even super-premium knockoffs, which sometimes hit the auction market with price tags in the thousands of dollars, causing headaches for collectors and rare whisky hunters.

The legitimate side of the industry isn't just standing by and letting it all happen, but it's simply a difficult, complex and massive problem to solve. One way in which science has responded, for instance, is with a laser test which can help to identify fake whisky. This development was led by research from a group at the University of St Andrews in Scotland—so clearly, the UK's best minds are being put to good use.

Yet, as is the case with most back and forth battles between crime and government, the authorities are clearly a step behind. The global issue of fake and counterfeit whiskies has seemingly only worsened, leaving the SWA scrambling to seek increased government intervention to help fend off the illicit invaders.

So what's one to do about all of the fake whisky out there? For one thing, take heart that the growth in counterfeits and knockoffs indicates the strength of the industry, even if it's detrimental. Just like pirated episodes of Game of Thrones, knockoffs demonstrate a product's popularity above all else. As for world travelers, be sure to closely inspect bottles for misspellings and logo differences. Otherwise, embrace the attitude that what's fake "whisky" to you may simply be another man's cheap drink of choice. Pour up a dram—buyer beware, of course.

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