Scientists develop simpler test for counterfeit whiskey

Whiskey bottleResearchers in Brazil have shown that an analytical technique known as Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (FT-ICR MS) can be a powerful tool for differentiating genuine whiskey from counterfeits.

Using the highly-sensitive technique, the Brazilian scientists were able to correctly distinguish between fake and authentic samples of whiskey provided by the Brazilian Drinks Association (ABAPE).

The technology has also been deployed in the analysis of wines and other spirits - including Brazil's national liquor Cachaca - and the latest study suggests is can also be deployed to screen for aging, counterfeiting and adulteration of scotch whiskey at the molecular level.

Importantly, FT-ICR MS is easier to carry out than existing methods for analysing whiskey based on gas chromatography (GC), which require sample extraction and pre-separation steps and relies on the detection of a spectrum of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Counterfeiters are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their production techniques and in some cases the VOC profile of a fake can be hard to distinguish from the genuine product.

In contrast, the new technique can be applied directly to the sample and provides analysis of a broader range of constituents. FT-ICR MS detects and identifies a range of ions in samples, and can be used to build up a profile of compounds such as carboxylic acids, phenols, saccharides, fat acids and sulphur or nitrogen constituents that give whiskies their distinctive character.

Worldwide the scotch whiskey business is estimated to be worth "several billions of dollars", according to the researchers, whose work is due to be published in the journal Food Research International (April 2013 edition [subscription required]).

"Due to its large commercialisation and relatively high prices, Scotch whisky counterfeiting and/or adulteration is quite common worldwide," they write.

"The accurate mass measurements and the number of detected ions, together with the direct, no sample preparation procedure employed, make FT-ICR MS a highly reliable approach to fingerprint whisky, and to control its quality," they continue.

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