Scientists have developed the world’s first handheld device that can detect counterfeit vodka and whisky while still in the bottle. Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS) devices give highly accurate chemical analysis of objects and contents beneath concealing surfaces, such as glass bottles. They work by using ‘an optical approach’ where lasers are directed through the glass, enabling the isolation of chemically-rich information that is held within the spirits.
Such devices are already commercially available but are usually used for security and detection of hazardous materials, screening and pharmaceutical analysis. The new version, developed at University of Manchester in the UK, is the first such handheld tool being used for a food or beverage product. “Food and beverage counterfeiting comes with the very real potential for serious health, economic and social consequences, especially when it comes to alcohol products,” said Roy Goodacre, professor at University of Manchester, who led the research.
“An essential part of ensuring consumer confidence is to provide assurance that these products are authentic and have not been either contaminated or counterfeited,” said Goodacre. Fake alcohol can also have massive implications for the health of its drinkers. Counterfeit alcohols do not follow stringent health and safety procedures, and often contain dangerous levels of methanol – a chemical used in antifreeze, which can cause sore throats, dizziness, sickness and even blindness.
“Sales of illicit spirit drinks can also have serious health impacts when industrial alcohols or methanol are used by counterfeiters and unknowingly consumed, with multiple deaths reported worldwide each year,” said David Ellis, co- author of the study published in the journal Nature. “That is why we have developed this approach, not only to ensure brand authenticity, but also to safeguard public health,” said Ellis.
The team tested the gadget on around 150 well-known brands of Scotch Whisky, rum, gin and vodka in closed glass containers, including 40 counterfeit products. As well as detecting the contents of fake alcohol, the researchers could also discriminate between multiple well- known Scotch Whisky brands and detect different levels of alcohol. The team also tested the device on several bottles of spirit drinks bought ‘off the shelf’ from local shops.
These were first measured unopened, then opened and contaminated with different levels of methanol (1, 2 and 3 per cent) and the tops replaced. The device detected the contamination with methanol through multiple colours of glass bottles in several types of spirit drinks including Scotch Whisky, gin and vodka, researchers said.