Different types of high-end whiskies can be chemically very similar, to the point that standard tests sometimes can't tell them apart. Master distillers can usually do so based on taste, although it's a somewhat subjective method. With that in mind, researchers at Germany's Heidelberg University have developed what's being described as a synthetic tongue – it scientifically differentiates between whiskies via their "flavor."

First of all, sorry, but it isn't a device that actually looks like a tongue with wires coming out of it. Instead, the technology consists of a series of small bottles, each one containing a different type of glowing polymer dye.

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When a drop of a given whisky is introduced into each bottle, the liquor's distinctive chemical composition subtly alters the fluorescence of the dyes – each one reacts differently. Like the taste receptors on the human tongue, the dyes aren't reacting to any one element in the whisky, but are instead reacting to the unique combination of all the chemicals that are present.

Although these reactions can't necessarily be detected by the human eye, a device known as a plate reader can measure them. As a result, the distinct combination of changes in fluorescence can be used to create a "fingerprint" that's unique to that whisky. Even another whisky that's very chemically-similar won't match it.

Not only can the technology assign a specific identity to individual whiskies, but it can reportedly also be used to indicate factors such as malt status (single or double), age and country of origin.

It should be noted that the system can't identify whiskies that it's never encountered before. Instead, the idea is that the technology will first be used to establish the fingerprint of a known whisky. When a whisky that is claimed to be that particular one is subsequently encountered, testing will reveal if it is indeed the genuine article. In this way, counterfeit whiskies could more easily be spotted.

According to lead scientist Prof. Uwe Bunz, the technology could also be used to tell the difference between other types of chemically-similar beverages, or even biological materials.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Chem.

Source: Cell Press