In September 2023, Whisky Auctioneer, a Scottish auction house for fine spirits, posted a story that stated it would soon be selling the “world’s oldest Scotch whisky,” believed to be nearly 200 years old, “sipped by a young Queen Victoria,” even. Oldest whiskey in the world? Of course that piqued our interest.
The discovery tale goes thusly: A trustee of Blair Castle in Perthshire, Scotland, apparently moved some Christmas decor in 2022 and found about 40 bottles of whisky lurking behind, conveniently marked with a little placard that read they were distilled in 1833, bottled in 1841, and then rebottled in 1932. Starting Nov. 24 through Dec. 4, 24 bottles will be going under the hammer at Whisky Auctioneer, with some believing each bottle could sell for more than 10,000 pounds. (At time of publishing, the No. 1 bottle’s current bid was 13,500 pounds.)
Wild right? Slight problem, though: It’s nigh impossible to accurately date the liquid within these bottles.
A little more backstory before we move into the science and facts. Initially, Whisky Auctioneer’s authentication expert, Joe Wilson, had a few quotes in the first story, wherein he said definitive things like “Offering the world’s oldest Scotch whisky at auction is truly a lifetime occurrence,” and “Distilled in the 1830s, the whisky was made during a fascinating period.” The article, as written on Sept. 25, also mentioned that carbon dating of the liquid “supports its early 19th century origin,” with a “high probability.”
But the thing about radiocarbon dating is that it can only determine whether organic material is older or younger than 1955, the year nuclear testing drastically affected carbon-14 isotope levels for the entire world. To crudely sum it up, carbon dating is looking to see whether the amount of carbon-14 in the organic matter is in such a high concentration it could only be from after 1955, or a lower amount, meaning it’s from before atomic bomb testing.
The wording on Whisky Auctioneer’s site surrounding the Blair Castle whisky tingled all of Adam Herz’s spidey senses. Herz, founder of the Los Angeles Whisk(e)y Society and a pro-bono whiskey authenticator who’s uncovered a slew of counterfeit whiskey being sold by retailers and auction houses, also happens to own the oldest bottle of whiskey in the world, confirmed by Guinness World Records, so awarded after four years of Herz’s own deep research and scientific scrutiny, later verified by Guinness’ third-party experts.
“If this Blair Castle whisky is Smithsonian level stuff,” Herz says, “we need honesty, clarity, and accuracy. This isn’t a mattress sale.” The first issue Herz takes with the Whisky Auctioneer marketing verbiage is the phrase that the carbon dating “supports its early 19th century origin.”
“All carbon dating can tell you is that this whisky was made between 1650 and 1955,” Herz says. “Does that ‘support’ 1833? Sure. It also supports 1943 or Christmas Eve in 1699. Telling the public that carbon dating supports this specific date when it supports any date in a 300-year range is deceptive.”
Days after our initial request to interview Wilson — and ahead of our actual conversation — Whisky Auctioneer suddenly published an entire piece about his exact process. At the same time, definitive language in the auction house’s initial post was also changed to be far less absolute: “Potentially” was added ahead of “the world’s oldest Scotch whisky”; and “If this whisky was distilled in the 1830s,” replaced the initial claim of “Distilled in 1833.”
Of his decision to publicly outline his authentication process, Wilson says, “we want to clear up any potential misunderstandings that have come as a result of the press release about the whisky. We’re not making any assertions to the whisky, only that we’re confident in the dating around it.”
“That placard is very convenient. Shortly after Blair Castle decides to increase their publicity efforts in a bid to up their current 142,000 visitors per year, coincidentally, they find this old whisky and supporting placard.”
To his credit, Wilson acknowledges carbon dating is “unfortunately not an exact science.” In an interview with VinePair, Wilson says, “We talk about carbon dating a lot because it sounds incredibly exciting, but it’s not a methodology to confirm a vintage. It’ll tell you a blend from the 1980s is masquerading as a single malt from the 1920s, for example,” but issuing a precise date is impossible without a tax stamp on the bottle.
To attempt to verify that desirable date of 1833, Wilson and Whisky Auctioneer are pointing to the fact that the glass bottles the whisky is held in “appear to be of 19th century origin, the wax seal and cork closures line up with methods we have observed from the 1930s and earlier decades.”
Though when pressed on whether he believes that glass was left over from the 1800s and merely reused in 1932, Wilson demurs. “I’m not saying anything for sure,” he says. “I don’t know if they were the original bottles that were resealed at the rebottling, or if [Blair Castle] deliberately sought out old style of glass bottles to be more befitting to the liquid. There are a few potential options and no real answer there.”
Blair Castle, an erstwhile prodigious producer of whisky and other spirits, kept decent records of when things were distilled and bottled, though Wilson and Whisky Auctioneer admit to being unable to find this specific vintage mentioned within any existing records, and have noted as much on their website. Absent record keeping, largely, the 1833 date is arrived upon by that oddly detailed placard noting the date of distillation, bottling, and rebottling.
“That placard is very convenient,” says Herz, adding that the timing of this discovery is also curiously opportune. “Shortly after Blair Castle decides to increase their publicity efforts in a bid to up their current 142,000 visitors per year, coincidentally, they find this old whisky and supporting placard, and say that they’re going to build an exhibit around it with a world record claim.”
“The University of Edinburgh currently has a sample [of the Blair Castle whisky] they’re testing with more sophisticated lab equipment. Potential results from that testing could include where the water used to distill was from, where the peat has come from, and more.”
Wilson laughs when asked about his level of skepticism when initially approached with this auction lot. “It’s complicated. I’m trying to authenticate the story that’s presented to us by the castle, and you have initial disbelief,” he says. “The placard was produced to indicate what was on the shelves and I don’t see the value to fabricating it at the time. We have no reason to believe that the placard doesn’t associate to those bottles.”
Wilson is forthcoming that there’s been “an over-enthusiastic response” from Blair Castle. “[Blair Castle’s] primary income is driving tourism through the castle, and this is a big opportunity for them. They want to tell a magical story and it’s our responsibility to sell it accurately and responsibly,” he says. Wilson says Blair Castle has been “fully cooperative” over the past four months as Whisky Auctioneer “worked them pretty hard” to get more evidence from the archive, noting that “you don’t want to swallow the whole thing and take it for gospel.”
The placard is a large crux of the date claim, but was it tested in any way to validate its claimed date? Was the ink or paper or wood tested to see if it’s age-appropriate? “I’m not aware of being able to do something like that,” Wilson says. “I guess you could; it’s paper mounted onto wood and there may be ways to test the paper, but that’s not something we’ve done in the past.”
The Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) has confirmed, by analyzing the maturation-related congeners, that the liquid is indeed whisky, with a “good probability of being produced in accordance with malt whisky distilling practices of [the 19th century],” per Whisky Auctioneer. However, Wilson notes that the SWRI has no samples this old to compare the Blair Castle liquid against.
“The University of Edinburgh currently has a sample [of the Blair Castle whisky] they’re testing with more sophisticated lab equipment,” says Wilson. “Potential results from that testing could include where the water used to distill was from, where the peat has come from, and more.” Wilson acknowledges that’s also a bit of a crapshoot given a lack of comparison samples from the early 1800s.
“The bottles don’t purport to be anything so, inherently, they can’t be counterfeit. …But if I had to guess whether it was distilled in or around 1833, I’d want some seriously big odds for that wager.”
“At the moment, we’re very much in the stage where we’re trying to drum up interest, when it comes to the auction,” Wilson says. “We’re aware we cannot sell something we cannot verify. When we come to sell it, we will state what we know and can be sure of. Dates can’t be verified but we found this supporting research and this is the best we can do. It’s all probabilities, but we don’t not want to sell this because we can’t be sure of the dates. We know it’s very old whisky, that the whisky is very good,” says Wilson.
Because an auctioneer needs these dates and this plausible backstory to help hype a sale, there is potentially a conflict of interest in the role of authenticator of an auction house. If the science doesn’t agree with the marketing narrative, what’s someone like Wilson’s obligation to share any misalignment with potential bidders?
“The important thing is that we state what we’ve done in terms of the science of authentication and make it clear we’re not guaranteeing the side of the story from Blair Castle,” says Wilson. “It’s not a conflict of interest, but as the auction house, we’re not duty bound in how we’ve chosen to communicate this narrative of Blair Castle.”
For Herz, that narrative raises a few interesting points: “One, there wasn’t a reason to hang onto whiskey back then; people were drinkers. Glass bottles were not common back then, either. Drinkers were using stone earthenware, which was filled up with your local spirit, and prior to 1823, there were thousands of illicit stills. That’s not the kind of whiskey you’d have put in an expensive glass bottle. Could it be possible? Sure. But it’s extremely unlikely.”
What’s more likely, per Herz, is that a bunch of various old demijohns — containers that held two to five gallons of spirits — were found lying around, consolidated, and bottled. “Blends were popular then, so it’s not unreasonable to think a variety of vattings were merely combined to result in these bottles,” he says.
As to what he believes is in the bottles, Herz says, “It could be distillate from the 1830s, the 1880s or the 1930s. But you also have to determine whether all the bottles have identical contents. If you have 24 bottles for sale, you have to test every damn bottle to verify that.” (Wilson says five bottles were opened, none of which are the ones being auctioned.)
“If it’s all identical, it’s whisky made in Scotland, likely in the 19th century, and it’s not counterfeit,” Herz says. “The bottles don’t purport to be anything so, inherently, they can’t be counterfeit. … But if I had to guess whether it was distilled in or around 1833, I’d want some seriously big odds for that wager.”
While Herz doesn’t believe that any actions of Whisky Auctioneer were nefarious, and does give Wilson et al credit for the increased amount of transparency over the past few months, “I think they’re [now] covering their butts. They’d have been better off being more clear [about the unknowns] from the start instead of changing wording later on.”
So where does that leave potential bidders with understanding what facts are irrefutable, scientifically proven about this Blair Castle whisky? “It’s pre-1955 whisky, in glass from around the turn of the century,” says Wilson. “We have confidence in the glass and seal, but nothing else is really provable.”