Experienced whiskey drinkers believe they can taste and smell the difference between top-shelf spirits and cheap, imitation blends. But even the most sophisticated connoisseurs can still fall prey to fraud, which is becoming a growing problem for the whiskey industry.
Researchers at University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in Australia hope to change all that with the development of an electronic nose that can identify different whiskey styles, brands and origins by “smelling” samples.
Per a paper published on April 1 in the journal IEEE Sensors, the device—called NOS.E—was able to identify differences between three blended-malt whiskies and three single-malt whiskies—made by Johnnie Walker, Ardbeg, Chivas Regal and Macallan—in less than four minutes. The prototype was 100 percent accurate on the region, 96.15 percent accurate on the brand name and 92.31 percent accurate on the style of the six whiskies it tested at the CEBIT Australia trade show in 2019.
Scientists confirmed the technology’s findings using time-of-flight mass spectrometry and two-dimensional gas chromatography, both of which are time-consuming chemical tests that must be performed in a laboratory by a trained professional. NOS.E, on the other hand, is quick and relatively inexpensive, the researchers write in the paper.
Created to mimic the human olfactory system, NOS.E has eight gas sensors that can “sniff” a vial of whiskey. The device evaluates each odor molecule it detects, then sends that data to a computer, where a machine-learning algorithm that’s been trained to recognize whiskey characteristics makes sense of the findings.
Electronic nose technologies have been used previously to stop illegal wildlife trafficking, assess wastewater treatment plant odors, identify cancer cells and, recently, to detect Covid-19, among other uses. Moving forward, NOS.E not only has the potential to sniff out fraudulent whiskies, but also to detect counterfeit wines, cognacs and expensive perfumes, according to a university statement. It may also prove useful for detecting diseases and other medical applications.
As Clay Risen wrote for the New York Times in January, whiskey is “a counterfeiter’s dream” because of high demand and limited supply. During the coronavirus pandemic, the problem got even worse: As people stayed home to help prevent the spread of the virus, they started drinking more at home, too.
To pull off their scams, counterfeiters typically refill expensive spirits’ bottles with cheap booze, then reseal them and sell them to unsuspecting buyers, often for hundreds or thousands of dollars. Some fraudulent sellers simply take customers’ money and never send the whiskey—or they send empty bottles instead, as Buffalo Trace Distillery warned in 2021.
Though few statistics exist about the scope of the problem on a global scale, a 2018 study found that a third of rare Scotch whiskies were fake. And with some rare whiskeys selling for up to $2 million, a device like NOS.E has the potential to save consumers a lot of money and heartache.“To have a rapid, easy to use, real-time assessment of whisky to identify the quality and uncover any adulteration or fraud could be very beneficial for both high-end wholesalers and purchasers,” Steven Su, a biomedical engineer and one of the paper’s co-authors, said in the statement.