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Detecting Counterfeit Whisky

February 23, 2016

Detecting Counterfeit Whisky


Shakespeare called it aqua vitae, the water of life. Scotland refers to it as its national drink. Since its first recorded distillation by Friar John Cor in 1495, authentic Scotch whisky, originally derived from barley and later grain under strict government regulations, has fueled a multi-billion-dollar global industry. For Scotland, the sale of Scotch whisky contributes nearly £4 billion to the annual economy. 1 Arguably the country’s most popular export, genuine Scotch whisky has a worldwide following and a premium price tag to match. Unfortunately, that price tag has also attracted a growing number of global counterfeiters busily trying to cash in on the drink’s international fame though deceptive advertising and outright fraud. 2

The European Spirits Organization (CEPS) acknowledges that counterfeiting is a major concern that costs government agencies millions in lost revenue. It also poses a serious health threat by providing inferior or even toxic ingredients, including methanol. 3 How big of a threat is it? CEPS estimates that a quarter of the products sold as imported spirits in China are actually fakes. According to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), which employs a legal team to track down frauds, 31 trademark infringement suits are currently underway in China. The next largest culprit for fake whisky is Australia, where SWA investigators found 40 different counterfeits for sale. Other countries selling fake Scotch include India, Bulgaria, Italy, and even the United States. 4 

To the Scots, the issue is more than just about lost revenue. A nation’s pride and identity are at stake. “While exports are extremely important on a financial basis, what is most important are the jobs and the heritage, especially in rural communities, that are wrapped up in Scotch whisky,” Alan Park, Senior Legal Counsel at the SWA, says. 5 Unfortunately, stopping the counterfeiters has so far proven to be easier said than done.

Uncovering Fake Scotch Through Science

A number of scientific processes have been launched over the years promising to assist in the detection of whisky counterfeits. Among the more novel – if costly—of these detection methods is radiocarbon dating, which is sometimes used to identify really old whiskies put up for auction and sought after by collectors from around the globe. The technique, however, has its limits. It relies on detecting a distinctive radiocarbon signature found in all organic materials from the early atomic bomb tests of the 1950s. If found in whisky, the sample is an undeniable fraud. What the test does not reveal are the sample’s ingredients, an essential key to detecting adulterated distillations. 6 To address that critical area, the Scotch Whisky Association has collaborated with PerkinElmer, a global leader in human and environmental health, to investigate some of the most effective scientific methods to verify Scotch authenticity.

Turning To Traceability

Since Scotch contains a number of compounds that vary by local ingredients, molecular spectroscopy is helpful in building profiles for different whiskies by geographic location. PerkinElmer scientists, for instance, used an AxION® 2 Time-of-Flight (TOF) Mass Spectrometer and FlexarTM FX-15 Ultra-high Performance Liquid Chromatography (UHPLC) system to detect over 100 compounds in Scotch whisky. Some of these compounds were associated with the oak barrels used to age the whiskey while others derived from the barley used in the fermentation process itself. In both cases, these distinguishing factors served as significant markers in designating the Scotch’s place of origin. 7

Even more telling results came from elemental analysis of various Scotch and Canadian whiskies. Using a PerkinElmer NexION® 350 ICP-MS instrument, researchers created datasets that were then analyzed via principle component analysis. The result led to the creation of unique differentiators between the tested Scottish and Canadian whiskies. Scotch whisky contained an acid derived from barley tannins and oak native to Scotland, while the Canadian whiskey contained traces of Sulphur, likely due to caramel coloring legally allowed in Canadian blended whisky. 8

IR Spectroscopy To The Rescue

Got a second? How about 150 of them? That is the amount of time it takes for ethanol and water to evaporate from a whisky sample at 65 0C using Attenuated Total Reflectance (ATR) Spectroscopy. What is that?

In ATR, the whisky sample is placed on top of a suitable crystal material. An infrared beam passes through the crystal and is internally reflected from the top crystal surface. A small evanescent wave then penetrates a small distance from the crystal surface into the sample itself before it is reflected back into the crystal and the infrared detector. The penetration of the infrared beam into the sample is sufficient to generate an infrared spectrum of the various whisky samples. 9

What does that mean? In short, IR Spectroscopy is easy, fast, and lends itself to rapid screening of whisky using the spectra of different whisky blends that are tested. Each of those spectral images is unique and can be used for qualitative identification of the different whisky blends.

“Utilizing the same methodology, it’s also possible to differentiate between French, Scotch, and Spanish whiskies, and whisky from other non-Scotch spirits,” says Nicola Vosloo, Senior Leader of Strategy and Global Applications at PerkinElmer. “Accordingly, it’s feasible to distinguish samples that have been diluted with water and or ethanol, offering a robust solution for the authentication of whisky.”


  1. Buckner B. Trawick, Shakespeare and Alcohol, Amsterdam, NL, Rodpi Press, 1978, p. 30. See also, Graeme Blackett, “Contribution of the Scotch Whisky Industry to the Scottish Economy,”  BiGGAR Economics, November 2012, p. 2.
  2. Select Science, “Industry News: Is Your Scotch Whisky Counterfeit? – An Interview with Professor Dholakia,” Select Science, May 20, 2014.
  3. BBC, “Fake Whisky Warning,” BBC News, March 7, 2003
  4. Jane Bradley, “Tackling The Trade In Fake Scotch Whisky,” The Scotsman, October 23, 2015.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Tom Marshall, “Atomic Bombs Date Fake Drams,” Plant Earth Online, produced by the National Environment Research Council (UK), January 25, 2009.
  7. Nicola Vosloo, “Identifying Whiskey Counterfeits,” Food Quality & Safety, October 21, 2015.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ian Robertson, "Comparison of Molecular Spectroscopic Techniques Applied to Whisky Analysis", Infrared/Near-Infrared/UV/Visible Spectroscopy White Paper, PerkinElmer, 2014.

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