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Whisky snobs scotched by artificial tongue

Boffins claim fluorescent dyes could help detect fake booze

By Rebecca Hill, 9 Jun 2017

Think you know your Bell's from your Balvenie? Your Jim Beam from your Jameson? Well, if a team of German researchers have their way, an artificial tongue might have you licked.

The team, based at Heidelberg University, have developed a "tongue" (OK, it's an assay plate with wells of 20 different fluorescent dyes that act as taste and flavour receptors) that they say can accurately distinguish between 33 different types of whisk(e)y.

Unlike other lab-based taste tests, the tongue doesn't need to break down the mixture into its chemical constituents to work – instead it tastes the sample as a whole, in a process more akin to the way human tongues work.

According to a paper published in the journal Chem, the synthetic tongue senses "everything" using fluorescent dyes, the brightness of which changes in response to the flavour compounds in the drink sample.

The researchers can then analyse the magnitude of the changes and create a profile that allows them to discern the different properties of the whisky – and so identify which whisky the tongue has tasted.

The team says the tongue can successfully separate out whiskies based on their age, brand, country of origin, and whether they are single malt or a blend.

Disappointingly for whisky fans, though, the tongue failed to distinguish whiskies based on their peatiness – a characteristic commonly used by humans in whisky tasting – although it was able to discriminate between light and rich, malty whiskies.

And, whisky snobbery aside, the researchers argue that there's a practical use to the work: identifying counterfeits of big brands.

This is because the tongue can be used to develop profiles of a range of whiskies, which can then be compared to pick out the similarities between two samples – and flag up an imposter.

"For high-end whiskies, asking prices range from €10,000 to €135,000 per bottle," the researchers write. "For this type of price, one might worry about counterfeits, but that could also apply at the low end of the quality spectrum, where large amounts of cheap alcoholic beverages and low-quality counterfeits are sold as branded scotch."

Sounds like cause for a quick celebration.

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