There is no getting away from it – used port barrels are not cheap! There is a good reason for this – there is a limited supply because only so many barrels get released on to the market each year and there is a growing demand as distillers become more experimental with the ageing techniques. Too much demand and not enough supply drives the price up and this has opened up an opportunity for some devious barrel suppliers to produce fake used port barrels.
The technique that these criminals use is to take a used wine barrel, put around 5 litres of port in it and simply roll the barrel around so that the port will coat the inside of the barrel (referred to as ‘rinsing’ a barrel). For added authenticity they will then typically leave the port in the barrel. Then they can sell the barrels to an unsuspecting distiller, who will find it incredibly difficult to detect the forgery. After all if you take the bung out it will smell of port and if you taste the liquid inside, it will of course be port!
The forgery will only generally be detected once the spirit has been aged in the barrel, when of course it will have not of the expected flavour notes you would expect from a genuine used port barrel. This is of course because with the minor rinse of port wine that the barrel has had, there will be virtually no penetration of port into the wood itself, just a very superficial coating.
So how do you spot a genuine used port barrel from a fake? Well the first thing to ask is who are you buying your used barrels from? Is it from a reputable cooperage which you can visit and see the barrels being refurbished for yourself? Or is it from an ‘agent’ with a warehouse and little more? Getting hold of genuine used port barrels is not easy and depends on long term relationships with the port wine houses, so you really need to question the credibility of your supplier.
You can then look at some technical details – for example used port wine barrels will generally be a bit beaten up, having already had two lives (once as wine barrels for several years and once as port barrels for several more years). This will mean that many of the barrels will need refurbishing. If you are buying fake barrels (i.e. barrels that have only been used for wine), then they would be in much better shape. So you have to ask if your supplier of barrels has the capacity to do this refurbishing themselves, if not how do they explain that they have a truck full of ‘used port barrels’ in suspiciously good condition.
Another clue is that port wine producers would never leave the name of the vineyard from where they received their barrels stamped on the head of the barrel. If the forger has left the name on or there are obvious signs that it has recently be sanded off, this is clearly suspicious.
Another clue is looking at what country you are buying the barrels from – you would expect to be sourcing used port barrels from Portugal or perhaps from Spain. It would be unusual for barrel agents in central or northern Europe to suddenly have access to such a sought after product as used port barrels as they are not generally available on the open market.
Because there is so much money to be made for the criminals making fake used barrels (and this of course applies to all manner of used fortified wine barrels, including sherry and madeira) there will always be unscrupulous barrel suppliers around who will be making their fortune from the unwary. The key has to be knowing your supplier – if your supplier is a cooperage with a long-standing history, with a specialisation in the used barrels you are looking for, then you are much less likely to be conned than when you are buying from an agent with a warehouse. The criminals who produce these rinsed barrels inevitably get caught after a time, so they will shut down one business and open it up with another name. It is difficult to imagine a well-established cooperage with a good reputation risking the family business for a criminal act that will inevitably come to light after a few years (when the distillers find out that their product has no fortified wine characteristics once the ageing is finished).
If you are in any doubt about the our used barrels, then we urge you to visit our cooperage, where you will be very welcome to poke around and satisfy your curiosity.