The war on sophisticated, high-quality fine whisky and wine forgeries looks like it will be able to bring to bear new technology that is even more sophisticated than expert human palates. Engineers from the University of Glasgow have published details of an ‘artificial tongue’ developed in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Nanoscale.
The new technology, as explained by Dr Alasdair Clark who worked on the project, “uses two different types of nanoscale metal ‘tastebuds’, which provides more information about the ‘taste’ of each sample and allows a faster and more accurate response.”
The team’s artificial tongue technology can determine for how many years a whisky has been aged and even detect the subtle differences between the same whisky aged in different barrels. The research showed 99% accuracy in readings and the technology can be applied to any kind of liquid, including wine.
Counterfeits have become an increasing problem in the high end whisky and wine markets, costing the industries millions every year. A study of 55 expensive aged malt whiskies carried out last year by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre discovered that 21 were imposters. They were either from a different vintage to that claimed or pure forgeries.
The fine wine industry has even greater problems with counterfeiting. Vineyards producing expensive wines have even started printing labels using the same kind of technology as is used for bank notes in an attempt to combat increasingly sophisticated copies – in turn created using the latest technology in chemical analysis, blending, and additives. It’s worth the effort for counterfeiters, with the value of the fake wine market estimated at over $3 billion annually.
There’s also a ‘white’ market for counterfeit wines. Companies like Integrated Beverage Group create facsimiles to fine wines and sell them at a fraction of the price. But while purists might not be convinced by the recreation of taste and ageing in a lab, no one is pretending these ‘copies’ are the genuine article.
But the best copies are now close enough in taste that even professional sommeliers and whisky tasters can struggle to distinguish them. Which is a problem when bottles are sold as genuine. As Dr Clark explains with reference to the whisky market:
“A lot of market share is lost to that kind of thing. Even run-of-the-mill whiskies are affected. In certain international markets we know that a bottle of Glenfiddich doesn’t necessarily come from Glenfiddich.”
The artificial tongue tech developed by the University of Glasgow team uses a hexagonal nanostructure of gold and aluminium. The ‘cells’ of the hexagon are so small that their electrons oscillate with the same frequency as light so the photons interact with the electrons when they come into contact with light. The patterns formed are highly sensitive to any changes in the surrounding ‘medium’ – be it air, water, wine or whisky. So once the ‘little nano-tastebuds’ have come into contact with a genuine whisky or wine, it will recognise the same liquid, or distinguish it from another with even the most subtle difference.
The one weakness of the technology is that it does have to first be trained on the ‘genuine’ article. That’s a problem if a bottle of wine offered at auction is so rare no one wants to open it. But it does make authenticating rare whiskies, which can be drunk over time, easier.