A new tool detects counterfeit whiskey -- without wasting a drop

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INTRO: There's nothing quite like the pleasure of sipping a fine Scotch whiskey [...] But how can you be sure that you're paying for the real deal and not some cheap counterfeit? Good news: Physicists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have figured out how to test the authenticity of bottles of fine Scotch whiskey using laser light, without ever having to open the bottles. They described their work in a recent paper published in the journal Analytical Methods.

As we reported last year, there is an exploding demand for expensive rare whiskies [...] so naturally there has been a corresponding increase in the number of counterfeit bottles infiltrating the market. A 2018 study subjected 55 randomly selected bottles from auctions, private collectors, and retailers to radiocarbon dating and found that 21 of them were either outright fakes or not distilled in the year claimed on the label.

Ten of those fakes were supposed to be single-malt scotches from 1900 or earlier, prompting Rare Whisky 101 cofounder David Robertson to publicly declare, "It is our genuine belief that every purported pre-1900 bottle should be assumed fake until proven genuine, certainly if the bottle claims to be a single-malt Scotch whiskey." There's also an influx of counterfeit cheaper whiskies seeping into the markets, which could pose an even greater challenge, albeit less of a headline-grabbing one.

That's what prompted Alasdair Clark of the University of Glasgow to develop [last year] an artificial "tongue" capable of distinguishing between different brands of whisky. [...] The challenge in applying such techniques to whisky is that the glass bottles themselves produce a large spectral signal, making it difficult to discern the chemical fingerprint of interest (that of the spirit inside). So spectroscopy is usually performed after whiskies have been removed from the bottle.

That's the problem Holly Fleming and her colleagues at St. Andrews have solved with this latest paper. They figured out how to shape the laser light into a ring instead of a focused beam, thereby suppressing the noisy signal from the glass. They used a cone-shaped lens to focus the ring of light onto the bottle, which in turn refocuses said light into the whisky inside. So an expensive bottle of rare Scotch whisky can be tested for authenticity without wasting a single precious drop. Bonus: the same technique can also be used to analyze bottles of gin and vodka... (MORE - details)

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