IT IS regarded as one of the finest collections of antique whisky in the world. The centrepiece of Macallan’s whisky museum in Craigellachie, on Speyside, which has been valued in excess of £500,000, draws whisky enthusiasts from around the world.
However, it could now be attracting visitors for another reason - as an example of one of the largest whisky forgeries in the history of the industry.
The Scotsman has learned that far from being some of the oldest whisky in the world, the liquid inside the bottles is not Victorian at all but dates from the late 1980s.
After a year-long investigation by the Macallan board, during which sample bottles were sent to Oxford University for carbon-dating testing, it emerged that the liquid content inside the bottles is "modern", in some cases as young as ten years old.
David Cox, the director of fine and rare whiskies for Macallan, yesterday described the findings as a "huge disappointment" and said the revelation had ramifications "not just for the market in antique bottles of Scotch but for the drinks industry as a whole".
Mr Cox said: "Those perpetrating this fraud doubtless sought to cash in on the growth in appreciation of fine, single-malt whiskies. The fraud involved them acquiring genuine old empty bottles at antique markets and re-filling them to be passed off as the complete genuine article."
The Scotsman understands that most of the bottles were bought from Italy from private collectors and auctions. It is not known how much Macallan paid for the collection but industry sources believe it would be considerably more than the present value of the collection which, after the revelations, is as little as 10,000.
Mr Cox added: "I am confident that the people we bought them from are not in the refilling business, they are respectable people.
"Somewhere along the line, they have acquired bottles either through another party or directly through the people who refilled them.
"If we can gather sufficient evidence against the perpetrators of this scam then we would consider bringing criminal proceedings, but it is going to be extremely difficult to find sufficiently hard evidence to be able to bring criminal proceedings against them."
Antique bottles of whisky started to appear at auction in greater numbers around the mid-1990s. It was a trend that caused a lot of collectors to pause for thought, according to Charles Maclean, a whisky consultant for Bonhams auction house and author of Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History.
Mr Maclean said: "Many people inside the industry were surprised at the time that while in the past there may have been an occasional bottle appearing at auction, there suddenly appeared to be a constant stream of old and obscure bottles which nobody had seen before.
"If you wanted to forge whisky, Macallan is the one you would go for, because it is by far and away the most collected whisky.
"The finger generally points to Italy; it may be terribly unkind to say that, but the Italians are master forgers. From classical times with major pieces of artwork there is a long and heroic history of forgery. But this is very bad luck, as a good forgery is almost impossible to detect, especially if the forger is using original bottles and refilling."
Macallan says the antique collection - totalling approximately 100 bottles - will continue to be displayed at the distillery and there are no plans to investigate the possibility of criminal proceedings against the perpetrators.
A spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association said: "Scotch’s worldwide success means that, from time to time, unscrupulous traders seek to take unfair advantage of its reputation for quality. The industry therefore devotes considerable resources each year to protect Scotch whisky from lookalike and counterfeit products. Distillers have well established authenticity testing procedures, as Macallan has demonstrated."