Counterfeit bourbon isn’t a new topic. Over the years, whiskey writers and podcasters have dedicated articles and episodes to this unfortunate dark side of our hobby. Occasionally, I’ve touched on it myself. But after reading Clay Risen’s latest piece for the New York Times, “That $1,000 Bourbon You Bought May Be a Phony,” I’m moved to stress how relevant this has become for Wild Turkey fans.
There was a time when amassing a library of unique and special Wild Turkey bottles was painless and inexpensive. Sure, one could say the same for any sought-after bourbon: “There was a time …” But for Wild Turkey, that time stretched well beyond the “good ol’ days” of acquiring reasonably priced vintage Stitzel-Weller and modern Buffalo Trace Antique Collection releases. Those days are gone.
At this moment there are various expressions of Wild Turkey for sale online for remarkable amounts. And it’s not just well-loved dusty bottles like “Cheesy Gold Foil” and glut-era Wild Turkey 101 8-Year. It’s Master’s Keep releases and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel private selections selling for two or three times their retail prices. And then there’s Russell’s Reserve 13-Year. Prior to Fred Minnick’s American Whiskey of the Year announcement, the $69 SRP bottle was regularly fetching $400 on secondary markets. I’d imagine that will increase soon (if not already). But before folks start blaming Fred (please don’t), they should consider the present state of bourbon.
When I first ventured into whiskey as a hobby, there were a handful of resources available to research brands and new releases: books, magazines, personal blogs, old-school message boards, and Reddit. There were few whiskey-focused YouTubers (Ralfy comes to mind) and Instagram was relatively new. Facebook was around. I was simply fortunate to avoid it (and thankfully, still do). But like many other hobbies, it didn’t take long for social media to envelop and profoundly expand the whiskey community.
We live in an age of short attention spans and instant gratification. “Hot. Fresh. Now.,” if you will. Why read a book, magazine, or blog, when you can watch a fifteen-second clip on TikTok? Why logon (much less, sign up) to a message board when you can download an iPhone app and finger swipe? Hell, who needs context or words at all? Just show folks a pretty bottle and tell them they can’t live without it.
To be clear, I’d like to believe a majority of whiskey enthusiasts aren’t so shallow. I’d like to think we’re largely a group of critical, inquiring minds. At least, it seems we were at one time. But maybe that’s being overly optimistic. Maybe we’ve passed the tipping point. Maybe common sense is now as common as a retail-priced bottle of Blanton’s. Looking at the hoopla surrounding certain whiskeys – particularly modern limited-edition bourbons – it sure appears that way. Factor in an immense drive and insatiable desire for something so few can physically obtain, and a recipe for disaster virtually writes itself. Clay Risen puts it best:
Bourbon in 2021 is, in other words, a counterfeiter’s dream, shaped by enormous demand, limited supply and a steady inflow of new and naïve fans all too willing to part with their money – and unlikely to go to the authorities when they realized they’ve been swindled in a transaction that is by definition illegal.Risen, Clay. “That $1,000 Bourbon You Bought May Be a Phony.” New York Times. Jan 6, 2022.
This is where we are. It’s where we have been for some time with certain rarities. It’s where we will soon be for more commonly found whiskeys if we’re not vigilant.
Which brings me to Wild Turkey and another wise observation by Mr. Risen:
To make the deception even easier, most distilleries are only slowly taking action. […] Many still package their bottles with common shrink-wrap seals, despite the ease with which such closures can be faked.Risen. “That $1,000 Bourbon.” NY Times.
That Russell’s Reserve 1998 you’ve been eyeballing on Facebook for $2,000? It could very well be a refill. Same with Russell’s Reserve 2002 or 2003. While the latter two may fetch half (or less) than Russell’s 1998, 750ml of throwaway whiskey, some shrink-wrap, and a heat gun are a minimal investment in consideration of the net return. But one could argue empty bottles of Russell’s Reserve vintage LEs are hard to come by. Fair enough. There are plenty of empty (or nearly empty) Master’s Keep bottles out there – tens of thousands of them. Again, all it would take is some cheap whiskey and a new seal, and, voila!, instant profit.
Wild Turkey expressions vulnerable to effortless counterfeiting stretch back to the 1990s and run through the 2000s: Wild Turkey Kentucky Legend (a/k/a “Donut”, c. 1998), 2000’s Kentucky Spirit, Rare Breed batch 03RB (particularly bottles with clear shrink-wrap), Tradition (2009), Diamond Anniversary (2014), and more. But let’s not stop there. It gets even easier.
Dying to get your hands on a Lincoln Road Russell’s Reserve rickhouse G selection from 2016? It’s probably a few hundred dollars now. Considering all a scammer needs is the original hang tag and an everyday bottle of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon, I’d say you’re rolling the dice. Yes, there are laser codes that may help validate. But unless you know and can clearly see the correct fill date, a bottle from the same year could easily fool a diehard Russell’s fan. And, there’s always the previously discussed refill method. All Russell’s Reserve bottles, including the newly coveted Russell’s 13, are sealed with standard clear shrink-wrap. Faking an unopened bottle is child’s play.
So where does that leave us? Should enthusiasts avoid seeking out rare and expensive bottles altogether? Ultimately, that’s up to the individual. At a minimum, a healthy dose of awareness should accompany any inclination of a rare whiskey purchase. Buying from a licensed retailer is an excellent step in the right direction, though as reported in Clay Risen’s article, fakes have been found in liquor stores. It’s also a good idea to know with whom you are dealing. In other words, “Tom from the internet” isn’t your friend, nor is a store’s proprietor, to be perfectly honest. But far more often than not, buying from a licensed retailer, especially an establishment with a longstanding quality reputation, is your safest bet. At the very least, you’ll have some recourse in the event of a counterfeit.
To those Wild Turkey fans fortunate enough to have enjoyed the glory days of bourbon hunting, I encourage you to open your bottles and share with your fellow whiskey enthusiasts. A little generosity goes a long way. After all, were it not for two dusty Turkey samples, this blog likely wouldn’t exist. And to those who have recently come to discover Wild Turkey, don’t fret. There are plenty of fantastic expressions readily available. From core bourbon and rye offerings to your local store’s single-barrel selection, there’s something for everyone. And the good news is, you shouldn’t have to worry about counterfeits there. Well, not yet.
I’ll close by reiterating Mr. Risen’s concern – that many producers are slow to act. In my opinion, some appear oblivious of the issue completely. With that, I encourage Campari to re-evaluate LE packaging for Wild Turkey. Is a common shrink-wrap-sealed cork an appropriate closure for a $250 whiskey? Based on recent events and the direction secondary sales are heading, I’d argue not. Besides, we’re not just talking about guarding consumers from scams, we’re talking about protecting overall product integrity. If what’s in the bottle truly matters most, it’s time to take additional steps to preserve it – for now, and the future.
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