Testing for age key in battle to expose fake, high-end alcohol

You know how the saying goes: Like a fine wine, it gets better with age; well, now a new technique has been devised that can also use maturity in alcohol to detect the fakes from the real thing, and cut down on a multi-billion-dollar fraud market that has also taken scores of lives.

Researchers from testing labs out of the Republic of Moldova used aromatic aldehydes and acids derived from lignin and studied these by capillary zone electrophoresis in barrel matured wine distillates used in brandy production.

Writing in the Food Control journal, they found that the total level of guaiacol-type compounds and syringol-type compounds in these "increased with increasing ageing time for distillates aged from one to 25 years."

By using this method, they could find which samples had the age they claimed to be, and thus find out those that were not, in a method the researchers describe as "simple, precise and cost efficient."

Fake alcohol has become a blight across Europe, and just last year around 50 people were killed by drinking fake Vodka in Ukraine, while the cases of fake alcohol in the UK have also been rising.

Forgers have also made major sums of money counterfeiting older, more expensive wines. Back in 2006, Rudy Kurniawan sold $24.7m of wine at an auction in the US, beating the previous record by $10m, in what became one of the more notorious cases.

Six years later, however, the FBI raided Kurniawan's house in California and discovered a counterfeiting workshop. It later transpired that Kurniawan had been taking cheaper wines and putting them in more expensive bottles, or altering bottles to appear more valuable.

Having a simple and cheap method of detecting these fakes, as the authors of the Food Journal piece have found, could help find out these fraudsters more easily.

The global wine industry is worth around $300bn, while the fine wine market makes up around 5 per cent of that total ($15bn), according to Maureen Downey, who runs Chai Consulting, a business that specialises in wine authentication and valuation.

Speaking at a London private members' wine club in November last year, and quoted by The Drinks Business, she said that: "Credible sources have said that as much as 20 per cent of the fine wine worldwide is fake, which would make fraudulent wine worth as much as $3bn at current market prices."

She also believes, however, that the industry can be guilty of burying its head in the sand when it comes to fakes, meaning a cultural shift will also be needed to stop counterfeiting, as well as new scientific shifts in testing.

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