Aged Scotch whisky can cost a fortune. For example, a bottle of Macallan Fine and Rare 60-Year-Old 1926 was auctioned off for $1.9 million. What a perfect target for counterfeiters! Nuclear science to the rescue: Scientists at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Center have developed a method to determine a whisky’s age. The radioactive fallout from the detonation of atomic bombs in the 1950s and 1960s has enabled scientists to create a Carbon-14 calibration curve based on whiskies with known age.
Unfortunately, alcoholic beverages are also prone to fraud involving the addition of substances that can cause illness or death. This often happens at the local level, with the production of “moonshine” or other unlicensed spirits. Some of the substances used have included methanol, isopropyl alcohol and industrial-grade alcohol.
One notable incident from the 1980s had global implications and severe market effects. Diethylene glycol was added to Austrian wines, resulting in recalls around the world when the adulteration was detected. Fortunately, no illnesses or deaths were reported. Just a year later, methanol added to Italian wine caused both hospitalizations and deaths. More recently, incidents involving the addition of methanol to spirits have caused deaths in India, China and Malaysia.
Authentication and traceability for alcoholic beverages, and specifically wines, lend themselves to technology-enabled solutions such as blockchain. On a lighter note, take a look at some of the labels documented by reporters covering the wine market in China. In a high value marketplace such as the wine business, there is no end to creativity in labeling.
When we talk about the identification of fraudulent foods and beverages, many elaborate methods are available in analytical chemistry and food labs. The method of using “whiskey webs” is quite unusual in its simplicity; it is based on the unique residue left behind by each beverage after evaporation. American Whiskey is matured in new charred oak barrels that transfer a number of water-insoluble components into the final product, allowing each whiskey to leave behind its own unique “fingerprint”.
Booze bootleggers are still quite active since there is a lot of money exchanging hands in the high-end wine and liquor business. Fake premium Penfolds wines, which can fetch several hundred dollars per bottle, as well as acclaimed brands of adulterated whisky, were discovered and seized in a liquor store in Cambodia. Besides the fake beverages, the raid also uncovered fake labels and packaging materials.
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