In his lab at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre in Glasgow, Dr Gordon Cook radiocarbon-dates archaeological treasures and forensic remains. But he is also increasingly being called upon to test the authenticity of whisky. His results are enough to drive any collector to drink: a Laphroaig in a bottle labelled 1903 was probably distilled around 2011; a Talisker supposedly distilled in 1863 was bottled between 2007 and 2014; and a 1964 Ardbeg actually dated back only to 1995 or later. “Of all the whiskies I have tested, of any purported to have been distilled in the 19th century and supposedly single malts, I haven’t found any so far that are genuine. Of whisky between the 19th and early- to mid-20th centuries, about 40 per cent are fakes,” he says. “But bear in mind that these are one-off, individual bottles being sold on the secondary market, so we’re not talking huge volumes.” Huge volumes perhaps not, but huge sums, potentially – yes: in 2019 a bottle of 1926 Macallan sold at auction for a record US$1.87 million. Whisky Debates: which is the best Japanese blend? Cook tests whisky mainly for private collectors but he also sometimes works with auction houses: “Houses that specialise in whisky are extremely good at spotting fakes, but if they’re not entirely sure, they may send a bottle to us.” He takes a tiny whisky sample (around one millilitre) with a hypodermic needle and calculates the age based on the liquid’s radioactive carbon-14 isotopes, irregular atoms left in the atmosphere by atomic testing in the 1950s. The changing atmospheric levels of carbon-14 are reflected in plants, and as barley – from which whisky is made – is an annual plant, the isotope content reflects the year in which the barley was grown. Radiocarbon-dating can be used on any alcohol (or other substances made from living organisms) that is annually produced, and Cook’s team have also tested rum and cognac. STYLE Edit: Sotheby’s has high hopes for ‘Ultimate Whisky Collection’ While radiocarbon dating estimates a material’s age, other hi-tech tests are being developed that detect fakes via alternative methods. Dr Alasdair Clark, associate professor at the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering, has created an “artificial tongue” that can “taste” the contents of whisky. The tongue is made up of millions of tiny gold and aluminium taste buds, each 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. “When you shrink certain metals down to this size they take on some strange optical properties, in our case they take on a bright green colour,” says Clark. “When you drop liquids onto the taste buds, this colour changes based on the chemical composition of the liquid. By making a number of different taste buds, each of which reacts to the mixture slightly differently, we’re able to build up a unique colour profile for each mixture we test. That lets us ‘fingerprint’ the liquid using a statistical classification system that is somewhat analogous to taste.” Drink like a boss: 10 classy whiskey brands to try right now A liquid’s “fingerprint” can then be compared to one from a genuine product to detect a fake. Clark says that another application of the technology is quality control monitoring during the brewing or distilling process. “Companies know what taste they are aiming for and our system is good at determining when something is going ‘wrong’ in the system and the drink is beginning to deviate from the desired taste,” he says. Another new development in the anti-counterfeiting space is being developed in the US. The IBM Crypto Anchor Verifier is an optical device that attaches to mobile phones. It can authenticate and identify substances using wavelength data and microscopic surface features. Whisky Debates: Glenfiddich 12YO vs Macallan Double Cask 12 Years Old Every material has a different molecular structure and reflects light with a unique wavelength signature. This signature is captured by the device, and is analysed by artificial intelligence (AI) in a Verifier app installed on the phone. The app immediately gives an output: a graph that tells the user whether the material is authentic. The research team have used the Verifier on clothing, drugs, diesel fuels, metal parts and paper products, as well as wine, whisky and vodka. They have also partnered with the Gemological Institute of America to help evaluate and grade diamonds. The Verifier, compact and easy to use, is suitable for individual wine and spirits collectors, and Donna Dillenberger, IBM Fellow, Enterprise Solutions, says they have already worked with many clients in the wine and spirits industry. “Using the Verifier, we’ve identified some wines and whiskies that have been diluted with water or other substances,” she says. The Verifier can read through transparent bottles, but for opaque bottles the wine would need to be poured into the Verifier attachment. To be able to identify the year in which a bottle of whisky was produced, or whether a wine really is a Chateau Margaux rather than cheap plonk, would require a sample of the authentic drink to compare against. STYLE EDIT: Why daring chefs pair Johnnie Walker whisky with Asian flavours The Verifier can also be integrated with blockchain technology to ensure that products stay authentic as they move through the supply chain. So a vineyard could analyse the wine as it is bottled, and upload the signature to the immutable digital ledger of the blockchain. The wine can be tracked through the distribution process, with the collector being able to verify that it is the same wine that left the vineyard by personally checking the wavelength. IBM say that the technology paves the way for further consumer or enterprise applications; for example, for analysing water quality, spotting counterfeit cash notes through lithographic print patterns and paper weaves, or in the medical sphere, by detecting cells, DNA sequences, or bacteria such as E coli . Want more stories like this? Sign up here . Follow STYLE on Facebook , Instagram , YouTube and Twitter .