‘E-Nose’ can smell like fine whiskey

A bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch.

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Scotch or Irish, single malt or blend? While a whiskey lover may be able to tell the good from the mundane by smell alone, most drinkers rely on the label, black or otherwise.

Whiskey is one of the world’s most popular alcoholic beverages and, with some premium brands hitting five or six figures, it’s also a prime target for fraud.

To combat this, researchers have developed an electronic nose (e-nose) capable of distinguishing between different brands, origins and styles by “sniffing” alcohol.

The project was led by Associate Professor Steven Su with PhD students Wentian Zhang and Taoping Liu, from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), in collaboration with chemists Professor Shari Forbes and Dr Maiken Ueland.

“Until now, detecting differences between whiskeys required either a skilled whiskey connoisseur, who could still be wrong, or complex and time-consuming chemical analysis by scientists in a lab,” Su said. An easy-to-use, real-time evaluation of whiskey to identify quality and uncover any tampering or fraud could be of great benefit to wholesalers and high-end buyers. »

The team used a new prototype electronic nose (called NOS.E), developed at UTS, to identify the differences between six whiskeys by their brand names, regions and styles in less than four minutes.

The experiment used samples of three blended malts and three single malt whiskeys, including Johnnie Walker red and black whiskey, Ardberg, Chivas Regal and a 12-year-old Macallan’s whiskey.

The study, recently published in the journal IEEE Sensors, showed that the electronic nose achieved 100% accuracy for region detection, 96.15% accuracy for brand name, and 92% accuracy. 31% for styling.

NOS.E is designed to mimic the human olfactory system, using eight gas sensors to detect odors in a whiskey bottle. The sensor array generates the unique signal matrix based on the different odor molecules it comes into contact with. It then sends the data to a computer for analysis, with a machine learning algorithm trained to recognize characteristics of the whiskey.

The researchers confirmed the findings of NOS.E using state-of-the-art laboratory tests on the whiskey samples: time-of-flight mass spectrometry combined with two-dimensional gas chromatography, which yielded similar results.

The technology has applications not only in the alcohol industry, with beverages such as wine and cognac as well as whiskey, but also for other products prone to counterfeiting, such as high-end perfumes .

Electronic nose technology has also been used to detect illegal animal parts sold on the black market, such as black rhino horns, and has great potential for health applications and disease detection.

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