Zhang Wei, a popular Chinese writer, took his grandmother on vacation to St. Moritz, Switzerland, where the two decided to splurge a bit.
The pair sauntered into the luxurious Hotel Waldhaus am See and plopped down at the bar. Called the Devil’s Place, it’s known for its vast collection of rare whiskies, self-described as the largest in the world. They eyed the more than 2,500 bottles lined up behind the bar in perfect rows like soldiers in formation.
One immediately stood out: an unopened bottle labeled as an 1878 Macallan single malt.
It was more than Scotch; it was a piece of history. The Scottish distillery opened in 1824, and its extremely small stills grew so famous that they ended up on a Bank of Scotland £10 bank note, as the company stated.
Zhang Wei knew it would be expensive, but his martial art fantasy novels made him a multimillionaire, according to China Daily. And he felt a special connection with the bottle. It was 139 years old, the same age his great-great-grandmother would have been.
“When I came across a fine spirit from over 100 years ago, there wasn’t much struggle inside,” Zhang later wrote. “My grandma who accompanied me on this trip was only 82, yet the alcohol was 139 years old — same age as my grandma’s grandma.”
So he ordered it. But the hotel manager Sandro Bernasconi was afraid the cork would disintegrate if he attempted to open the bottle and said it wasn’t for sale. Wei pushed back, saying it was important.
“My father bought the bottle of Macallan 25 years ago, when he was manager of this hotel, and it had not been opened,” Bernasconi told the BBC. “When Mr. Zhang asked if he could try some, we told him it wasn’t for sale. When he said he really wanted to try it, I called my father who told me we could wait another 20 years for a customer like that so we should sell it.”
Zhang bought a single glass for more than $10,000.
“Mr. Zhang and I then opened the bottle together and drank some of it,” Bernasconi said.
The taste was fairly disappointing.
Zhang later described the experience on Weibo, a Chinese microblogging platform similar to Twitter, merely saying the whisky “had a good taste.” He stressed, though, that, “It’s not just the taste, but also history.”
Unfortunately, that history was hogwash — and so was the Scotch.
Readers of Zhang’s blog pored over the photos he posted and began to notice some discrepancies in the bottle’s label and cork. Something didn’t seem right, so a few experts reached out to the hotel.
After hearing their concerns, Bernasconi hired Rare Whisky 101, a company that performs valuations on whiskies. Andy Simpson, the company’s co-founder, organized a test that found the bottle was filled with a blended whisky, probably distilled between 1970 and 1972 — about a century from the dram of history Zhang Wei thought he had purchased.
Researchers at the University of Oxford then performed carbon dating on the label and the cork, finding it was also probably from the 1970s.
“The bottle, the label, the cork and the whisky were all counterfeit. There are three kinds of fakes we see — refills, replicas and relics — and this falls in the relics category of pretending to be an exceptionally old bottle,” Simpson told the Times of London.
The bottle, which Bernasconi thought was worth around $350,000 turned out to be “almost worthless as a collector’s item.”
He quickly flew to China to reimburse Zhang.
“He thanked me very much for the hotel’s honesty and said his experience in Switzerland had been good,” Bernasconi told Atlas Obscura. “The result has been a big shock to the system.”
David Robertson, the other co-founder of Rare Whisky 101, said it’s not uncommon for counterfeiters to try passing off cheap whisky as a rare relic, especially since these bottles are often sold on the secondary market and generally don’t undergo much testing. For one thing, the bottle needs to be open to test the liquid itself.
“We would implore that others in the market do what they can to identify any rogue bottles,” Robertson told the BBC. “The more intelligence we can provide, the greater the chance we have to defeat the fakers and fraudsters who seek to dupe the unsuspecting rare whisky consumer.”
As Simpson pointed out to the Times of London, “a bottle that has been opened and proven to be genuine is worth an awful lot more than one that looks authentic but has never been opened.”
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