Scientists develop tiny artificial ‘tongue’ to detect counterfeit whisky

Scientists at the University of Glasgow have developed a “bimetallic nanoplasmonic tongue” capable of detecting differences between whiskies, which they say provides a portable and cheaper alternative to techniques currently used in counterfeit detection.

In the report, published in journal Nanoscale, the scientists claim that their artificial ‘tongue’ provides a cost-effective and portable alternative to technologies such as liquid chromatography mass spectrometry, which are currently used to identify counterfeit spirits.

This is not the first so-called artificial ‘tongue’ or ‘nose’ to be developed, but the researchers state that their version has greater chemical stability and sensitivity to environmental changes, and can also be reused.

Their tongue contains a microscopic ‘tasting’ device comprised of two different metals, and according to the report, was capable of distinguishing between seven different whiskies and three controls.

Scientists used three control substances – deionised water, deionised water mixed with vodka, and straight vodka – and seven different whiskies including Glenfiddich 12-year-old; Glenfiddich 15-year-old; Glenfiddich 18-year-old; Glen Marnoch Sherry Cask; Glen Marnoch Bourbon Cask; Glen Marnoch Rum Cask; and Laphroaig 10-year-old.

Samples of the liquids were placed over the microscopic metal places and measured for their ability to absorb light.

The scientists also noted that their artificial ‘tongue’ had the added benefit of being able to be modified in order to adjust its ‘tasting sensitivity’. Its “unique features” enabled the scientists to halve both the typical sensor size and the time it took to acquire the data, while still producing detailed results.

They said that their new approach to artificial tongue design “may spur the development of portable devices for applications in point of care diagnostics, counterfeit detection in high-value drinks, environmental monitoring, and defence.”

Speaking to Beverage Daily, Dr Alasdair Clark, researcher and lead author on the paper, said that the project had taken one year to complete and that the technology had great potential. 

“We have only tested it in-house, with our own scientists. But we are open to working with any company who would like to take this to the product development stage”, he said.

“We specialise in building nano-scale materials that react to light. We saw an opportunity to build an artificial tongue that worked on these principles. The tongue was 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​.”

“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​.”

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