Fake whisky: Have scientists got the problem licked?

An artificial ‘tongue’ which can taste subtle differences between drams of whisky could help cut down on the trade in counterfeit alcohol, scientists say.

Fake whisky is a big problem. More than a third of vintage Scotch whiskies tested at a specialist laboratory were found to be fake, according to a study conducted in 2018 by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC).

Twenty-one out of 55 bottles, potentially worth a combined £635,000, were confirmed as being either fake or not distilled in the year claimed.

Fake Whisky - Whiskey glass with ice in front of bottles - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

The bottles had been selected at random from auctions, private collections and retailers, and included a bottle of Ardbeg 1885, a rare Thorne’s Heritage early 20th century blended whisky; and an Ardbeg malt allegedly bottled in the 1960s – all three of which were proven to be fake.

The samples had been submitted by whisky broker, Rare Whisky 101 (RW101), which had become concerned by the proliferation of fake whisky in the second market.

The results of the test led RW101 to estimate that as much as £40m-worth of rare whisky circulating in the secondary market and in existing collections, could be fake.

But engineers claim to have now solved the issue. In a new paper published in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal Nanoscale, Scottish engineers describe how they built an artificial ‘tongue’ , which exploits the optical properties of gold and aluminium.

Sub-microscopic slices of the two metals, arranged in a checkerboard pattern, act as the ‘tastebuds’ in the team’s artificial tongue.

The team used the ‘tongue’ to sample a selection of whiskies from Glenfiddich, Glen Marnoch and Laphroaig - image courtesy of University of Glasgow.
The team used the ‘tongue’ to sample a selection of whiskies from Glenfiddich, Glen Marnoch and Laphroaig – image courtesy of University of Glasgow.

The researchers poured samples of whisky over the taste buds, which are about 500-times smaller than their human equivalents, and measured how they absorbed light while submerged.

Statistical analysis of the very subtle differences in this allowed the team to identify different types of whiskies.

The team used the ‘tongue’ to sample a selection of whiskies from Glenfiddich, Glen Marnoch and Laphroaig, and it was reportedly able to taste the differences between the drinks with greater than 99% accuracy.

It was capable of picking up on the subtler distinctions between the same whisky aged in different barrels, and tell the difference between the same whisky aged for 12, 15 and 18 years respectively.

Dr Alasdair Clark, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering, is the paper’s lead author.

He commented: “We call this an ‘artificial tongue’ because it acts similarly to a human tongue – like us, it can’t identify the individual chemicals which make coffee taste different to apple juice but it can easily tell the difference between these complex chemical mixtures.”

While the team focused on whisky in their experiment, the artificial tongue could easily be used to ‘taste’ virtually any liquid, continued Dr Clark, which means it could be used for a wide variety of applications.

“In addition to its obvious potential for use in identifying counterfeit alcohols, it could be used in food safety testing, quality control, security – really any area where a portable, reusable method of tasting would be useful,” he added.


Unattributed image courtesy of Depositphotos