A single bottle of rare whiskey can auction for $1 million or more, but the market is ripe with fraud. Scotland researchers are racing to build groundbreaking technology to identify fakes.

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    A single bottle of rare whiskey can auction for $1 million or more, but the market is ripe with fraud. Scotland researchers are racing to build groundbreaking technology to identify fakes.

    Alasdair Clark artificial whisky tongue

    Alasdair Clark, senior lecturer at the James Watt School of Engineering, with his artificial, whiskey-tasting “tongue.”

    Alasdair Clark


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    • Counterfeit drinks cost the UK economy upwards of £200 million in 2018, the EU Intellectual Property Office reported.
    • Rare whiskeys have become the new hot commodity for collectors, fetching over $1 million in auctions in recent years.
    • But the industry struggles to weed out fakes — two Scotland labs are hoping to fix that.
    • The team at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews developed a new approach using laser spectroscopy to examine the contents of a whiskey bottle without having to tamper with it.
    • Meanwhile, at the James Watt School of Engineering at the University of Glasgow, researchers have developed an artificial “tongue” that would require opening the bottle, but is 99% accurate, they reported.
    • The biggest hurdle both technologies will have to overcome is how distilleries keep record of their stock, one whiskey collector noted.
    • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

    It was about 15 years ago when Sukhinder Singh, a collector and the cofounder of London-based premium spirits retailer The Whisky Exchange, first became suspicious. He’d been actively seeking old whiskey bottles since the early 1990s — rarely, though, had he ever encountered anything from a hundred years ago or earlier. 

    Suddenly, a trove of rare finds appeared, almost out of nowhere, on the market, mostly offered for private sale, as is commonplace for rare liquors and wines. Rumors suggested that an unnamed dealer had acquired them from a single cellar. As the cascade continued, Singh’s suspicions grew stronger.

    He and fellow aficionados, who had all bought bottles from this supposed stash, started examining these new treasures closely. From the outside, at least, they seemed legitimate — the labels, the closures, and the patina of the bottle passed muster; the real test would be the taste.

    Sukhinder Singh Sukhinder Singh.

    The Whisky Exchange


    They decided to open a few of their purchases, and were alarmed as soon as they did: The corks looked too new. The flavor was confirmation. 

    “We’d tried plenty of old whiskey, and we knew what flavors develop in the bottle, a slightly metallic, mushroomy, earthy taste — it mellows out,” he told Business Insider. “These had none of that.”

    Clearly, he recalled, the dealer had instead bought some old empty bottles, filled them with cheap whiskey, and artfully aged the fakes. He said the seller has yet to be charged with a crime. “It was swept under the carpet, frankly, so some of those bottles are still floating around, and unassuming buyers end up with them,” he said.

    Sukhinder Singh Sukhinder Singh.

    The Whisky Exchange


    If only that were the only instance of risky whiskey; since then, Singh warned, it has snowballed. Some, though, are fighting back, notably two rival teams of researchers at Scotland’s best universities, who have devised different techniques to help short-circuit such counterfeiting.

    Rare whiskey auctions have taken center stage in recent years

    This rise in forgery, of course, has occurred over the last decade as a result of the soaring sums that rare Scottish drams can now fetch at auction. A 1926 Macallan sold for £1.5 million ($1.9 million) at Sothebys in October 2019, besting the record of £1.2 million ($1.5 million) for a single bottle from the same year a few months earlier.

    It’s a staggering stat given the dearth of interest when Singh started collecting and just a few thousands bottles came up under the gavel each year. By 2017, 84,000 bottles of whiskey were deemed worthy of selling this way, with several operations dedicated solely to their sale, like the Whisky Auctioneer

    The US, of course, is a prime market for these premium products: Sales for Scottish single malts stateside surged to 1.96 million cases in 2018, up 5.2% year over year. Americans are among the foremost collectors of vintage drams, the very market counterfeiters aim to fleece. 

    Consider the late Pepsi Cola Bottling Co’s Richard Gooding, whose Denver, CO-based home had its own custom built pub, designed to showcase his 3,900-bottle collection; key treasures are being auctioned in two events this year, with estimates that the overhaul haul could be worth $10 million or more.

    It’s sobering, then, to pause and reflect how widespread this problem truly is. One study from 2018 of 55 randomly selected old whiskey bottles found that 21, or almost 40%, were either fakes or distilled in a year other than that claimed on the label.

    Searching for the truth, without opening the bottle

    If only these whiskey lovers could have called in the team at the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, which has developed a new method for would-be whiskey collectors to test bottles without tampering with their contents. 

    Graham Bruce is a senior research laboratory manager working with the professor who leads that team, Kishan Dholakia. He explained that the technique to date a bottle and its liquid was first piloted a decade or so ago, inspired by the university’s location in the heart of whiskey country (compare similar work in France, where scientists in Bordeaux have investigated how to fight fakeries among bottles of its precious red wine).

    Graham Bruce Graham Bruce.

    Optical Manipulation Group, University of St Andrews


    There was one problem with it, though: Testing the contents required collectors to open bottles, and so render their treasures worthless. The new approach, using laser spectroscopy, solves that conundrum.  

    Shining a laser light onto any target substance scatters the light in a particular pattern, according to the chemical compounds it contains; unfortunately, the glass of a given bottle would interfere with readings from the contents, Bruce explained. He helped devise an elegantly simple workaround: Manipulate the laser using an axicon, a widely available conical lens that resembles a squished ice cream cone made from glass. It allows the laser point to be targeted past the bottle and into the heart of the liquid, where readings can be taken, unsullied.

    “Then what we see on our screen is a spectrum, different colors of light of relative intensities being emitted from the sample, on a graph that looks a bit like a mountain range,” he said. The topography acts like a unique fingerprint for any whiskey — or other liquid, from wine to olive oil — that can be cross-checked against a master reading already banked from a bottle that’s known to be genuine. 

    graham bruce laser whisky fraud The laser spectroscopy approach Bruce and his team created.

    Optical Manipulation Group, University of St. Andrews


    Take a bottle that claims to be from 1955, perhaps: This technique could examine it, undamaged, to see what congeners or flavor compounds it contains. “If a chemical didn’t exist before 1960, for example, you could look for it within that topography and know for sure,” Bruce said.

    He noted that there are widespread potential applications for the technology he helped develop, especially as it relies on widely available components. There could be demand at the premium end to verify multimillion-dollar sales, but he said to consider the developing world, too. 

    graham bruce laser whisky fraud The technology in action.

    Optical Manipulation Group, University of St. Andrews


    “People are dying from buying knock-off booze diluted with methanol,” he said. “With this technique, they could know for sure whether a bottle is safe for human consumption.” The team is already working with a partner it declined to name on commercializing the application; since the technology is proven, it’s simply cost and logistics that stand in between the lab and your local bar.  

    Taste testing with an artificial ‘tongue’

    Alasdair Clark is a senior lecturer at the James Watt School of Engineering at the University of Glasgow, 75 miles away from Bruce and his team, where he’s developed a device that deploys plasmonics to ferret out fakes.

    “The simplest way to describe plasmonics is as tiny, tiny little bits of metal that do something weird when light hits them,” he told Business Insider. “Dump liquids on top of them and they change color, according to the refractive index of the materials that are surrounding them — air and water, for example, produce different colors when you look closely.” 

    Clark reasoned that plasmonics could be used to analyze whiskey, creating a visual pattern of colors unique to each dram as the liquid is poured. He and his team developed a prototype which deploys well-established plasmonic technology. Clark considers this more a “tongue” than a sensor, though, since it doesn’t capture molecules (compare a pregnancy test) but instead allows them to wash through the device, as our tongue tastes food en route to our stomachs. In tests, the plasmonic-powered tongue tasted the difference between 12-, 15-, and 18-year-old whiskies with 99% accuracy, Clark said. 

    Glenfiddich Alasdair Clark whisky fraud The device identifying a 30-year-old Glenfiddich.

    Alasdair Clark


    Of course, unlike Dholakia’s device, Clark’s concept would require collectors to open their bottles; he sees its applications differently, though. Once miniaturized, a device like this could be kept behind a bar and dunked into a drink whenever it’s ordered, allowing the bartender to verify the dram right in front of a customer.

    He, too, said he’s working with a commercial partner on development, but cites an NDA that precludes him from sharing exact details.

    “It’s cost that inhibits commercialization, not the technology — it’s the price of building the thing that would keep it out of individual customers’ hands, but I could see bars buying one,” he added.

    Tongue for scale Alasdair Clark whisky The artificial tongue with a pound, for scale.

    Alasdair Clark


    The real obstacle to fighting fakes isn’t technology but the distilleries’ own record-keeping

    These technologies, developed in the heart of Scotland, could help protect one of its foremost exports: Counterfeit drinks, per the EU Intellectual Property Office, cost the UK economy upwards of £200 million in 2018.

    Yet Singh doubts they’ll make a dent in the market for one reason. Both techniques rely on cross-checking results with a master database of readings from guaranteed-authentic bottles — which are all but impossible to source. 

    “Unless you have a sample from, say, 1938 to make sure it’s the right batch, how can you have a benchmark?” he said. “And the whiskey makers don’t have archives of their old bottles, just records on paper of what was produced. I don’t even think they do it now.” 

    He added that whiskey makers should act now to make sure that today’s crop of single malts isn’t susceptible to fraud in decades to come.

    “You can’t put a black foil seal on a bottle as a closure, as it’s too easy to replicate,” he said. “At a certain price point, the closure should be embellished, with a distiller’s name over it or even use something like Prooftag. They should have done it 10 years ago, and the industry needs to sharpen up.”

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