WHEN you’re contemplating life over a warming dram it’s good to know your “water of life” has sprung from the very bedrock of Scotland.
It would leave a bitter aftertaste if your fine single malt was unmasked as a Glenbogus, distilled far from Scottish shores.
This is where you need an expert whose scientific sleuthing skills have helped crack murders and human trafficking cases around the globe. Think CSI: Speyside. Think international whisky detective.
Dr Wolfram Meier-Augenstein grew up in Germany but has lived in Scotland for the past two decades. He works as a professor of isotope forensics at the James Hutton Institute and Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.
His latest research is aimed at authenticating Scotch whisky. The national drink has been granted protected geographical status by the European Union, which means it is an offence to pass off products made elsewhere as Scotch.
Now the professor has developed ground-breaking tests that can identify the genuine article in a line-up of suspects.
“It’s mass spectrometry, but not as you know it,” he said. “We compare the isotope ratio in an authentic whisky with the suspected counterfeit. We can tell if it matches the characteristics of the genuine article. Rather than looking for a needle in a haystack, we are reducing the size of the haystack.”
Stable isotopes are alternative forms of an element such as carbon or oxygen with different atomic weights to each other. Identifying the isotope signatures found in materials such as soil, food and human tissue can point to their geographical, geological, chemical and biological provenance.
Dr Meier-Augenstein is using the technique to detect whether spirits labelled as Scotch have been made with Scottish water.
“As far as our tests are concerned, the nice thing about Scotch whisky is that it only has three ingredients: barley, yeast and water. “The provenance of the barley can be a bit of a grey area, as it is sometimes sourced from England in years when there has been a poor yield north of the Border, but the water used to make the mash is usually sourced as locally as possible to the distillery.
“Water that falls in the Cairngorms is different from water that falls in the Lowlands, and water that falls in Islay is different to water that falls in Orkney. And we can measure the difference. We’ve mapped out the isotopic fingerprint of all the fresh water in Scotland – we call it the isoscape.”
Counterfeit Scotch is understood to cost the whisky industry around £500 million a year – about 10 per cent of its sales.
The scale of the problem means the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is involved in around 70 legal actions around the world at any given time. And that’s just for generic fake “Scotch”. Pursuing the producers of counterfeit branded whiskies is down to the firms whose products are being impersonated.
The professor’s findings have been welcomed by the Scottish Government and the whisky industry as a potentially valuable new tool in the battle to safeguard a trade worth nearly £5 billion a year.
“Scotch whisky is one of our most iconic products and the value of it was worth £4.3bn in 2012,” said Scotland’s food and drink minister Richard Lochhead. “If there is a method to ensure anything labelled as Scotch whisky is 100 per cent genuine, this will further safeguard the Scottish whisky trade against imitation and ensure consumers can enjoy a genuine dram.”
David Williamson, an SWA spokesman, said: “The industry is always interested to explore different techniques that may assist our product authentication efforts. Protecting the integrity of Scotch whisky and consumers from fake products is a top industry priority.”