Scottish researchers develop artificial tongue to detect fake whisky

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An artificial tongue able to detect subtle differences between different drams of whisky could help cut down on the trade in counterfeit alcohol according to a group at the University of Glasgow.

artificial tongue
The technology could become a new tool in the battle against counterfeit scotch. Image: pixabay

Described in a paper published in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s journal Nanoscale, the system uses a checkerboard arrangement of tiny gold and aluminium taste-buds.

Statistical analysis of the subtle variations in how these tiny taste buds absorb light while submerged in different liquids 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. It was able to taste the differences between the drinks with greater than 99 per cent accuracy. It was also 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.

Whisky counterfeiting is an increasing problem for the drinks industry. Indeed, a study carried out in 2018 by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) used carbon dating technology to conclude that up to a third of rare bottles of scotch whiskies are in fact fakes. The Glasgow group believes that its technology could help cut down on the trade in counterfeit alcohol, something thought to cost the EU economy alone around €3bn per year.

Lead researcher on the project Dr Alasdair Clark said: “We’re not the first researchers to make an artificial tongue, but we’re the first to make a single artificial tongue that 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.

Clark added that whilst initial studies have focused on whisky, the technology could easily be used to ‘taste’ virtually any liquid, and has potential applications in food safety testing, quality control, and security.

The research, which was conducted by engineers and chemists from the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, was supported by funding from the Leverhulme Trust, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.