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It’s now possible to detect counterfeit whisky without opening the bottle

Enlarge / Inside a dunnage warehouse of Highland Park whisky distillery. A new portable spectrometer would help detect counterfeit whiskies. (credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Image)

There’s nothing quite like the pleasure of sipping a fine Scotch whisky, for those whose tastes run to such indulgences. But how can you be sure that you’re paying for the real deal and not some cheap counterfeit? Good news: physicists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have figured out how to test the authenticity of bottles of fine Scotch whisky using laser light, without ever having to open the bottles. They described their work in a recent paper published in the journal Analytical Methods.

As we reported last year, there is an exploding demand for expensive rare whiskies—yes, even in the middle of a global pandemic—so naturally there has been a corresponding increase in the number of counterfeit bottles infiltrating the market. A 2018 study subjected 55 randomly selected bottles from auctions, private collectors, and retailers to radiocarbon dating and found that 21 of them were either outright fakes or not distilled in the year claimed on the label.

Ten of those fakes were supposed to be single-malt scotches from 1900 or earlier, prompting Rare Whisky 101 cofounder David Robertson to publicly declare, “It is our genuine belief that every purported pre-1900 bottle should be assumed fake until proven genuine, certainly if the bottle claims to be a single malt Scotch whisky.” There’s also an influx of counterfeit cheaper whiskies seeping into the markets, which could pose an even greater challenge, albeit less of a headline-grabbing one.

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