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How Do You Spot Vintage Whiskey? It Has Fewer Radioactive Particles

May 04, 2009 07:00 PM
by Haley A. Lovett
The level of radioactive carbon in whiskeys made after 1950 is higher due to nuclear bomb testing, making it easy to identify new whiskey posing as century-old vintage.

Radiocarbon Dating Helps Identify Counterfeit Whiskey

A bottle of whiskey masquerading as an 1856 Macallan Rare Reserve, which could have sold for tens of thousands of dollars, had to be withdrawn from a Christie’s auction in December 2007 because its origin was determined as being sometime after 1950. A surprising characteristic revealed the true age of the malt: radioactive particles.

Researchers at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit are now able to tell if a whiskey was made prior to 1950, thanks in part to the nuclear testing going on at that time. Organic material living after the start of nuclear testing contains more traces of radioactive carbon than organic material from before the time of nuclear testing. Barley, which is used to make whiskey, is organic material, and thus scientists can examine whiskey for trace amounts of radioactive carbon and determine when it was made.

The majority of the testing is done for the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, a scientific center that aims to maintain distilled beverage quality, improve distilled beverage manufacturing and preserve the integrity of the industry by authenticating products (such as vintage whiskey).

Dr. Tom Higham, deputy director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit, says that the majority of the whiskey samples sent to them end up turning out to be from after the 1950s. Although the radiocarbon dating has helped identify cases of counterfeiting a vintage bottle of whiskey, it can’t always identify the exact date of creation. “If it’s from before [1950] we may only be able to say that it doesn’t contain bomb carbon,” explained Dr. Tom Higham, deputy director of the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit.

Background: How radiocarbon dating works with whiskey

Carbon 14 is a radioactive particle found naturally in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Plants absorb the radiocarbon through photosynthesis, and animals then absorb the radiocarbon when they eat plants. The levels of radiocarbon found in plants or animals would then be the same as those found in the atmosphere during its lifetime. After the plant or animal dies, the radiocarbon begins to decay; scientists use the ratio of radiocarbon to stable carbon found in the organism’s remains, along with their knowledge of the rate at which radiocarbon decays, to put an age on the remains.

Although all organic material collects a certain amount of carbon 14 during its lifetime, elevated levels of radioactive carbon present after nuclear bomb testing started in the 1950s makes it so that plants and animals from after that time contain an elevated level of the carbon. This artificial elevation of the radiocarbon is what gives away a counterfeit whiskey posing as a century-old variety.

When the lab gets a sample to test, they burn the whiskey and use electricity to charge the resulting gas from the burn, and measure the amount of carbon 14 present.

Before the researchers at the ORAU began to authenticate whiskey for buyers and sellers, the Scotch Whisky Research Institute sent them samples of whiskey with already-known dates of creation to ensure that the method worked. The ORAU was able to properly identify the samples provided, and even discovered that one sample had been improperly labeled. Because of its success in authenticating whiskey using radiocarbon dating, the lab has recently started dating wines, although wine dating can be more difficult because of the variety of organic material used to make it.

Related Stories: Counterfeit olive oil

Whiskey is not the only foodstuff industry rife with counterfeiters. The high price of olive oil has created a new market for fraudulent dilution and exporting of olive oil. In the late 1990’s olive oil was the most counterfeited agricultural product in the European Union. Olive oil from countries other than Italy would be taken there, and then exported as Italian to catch a higher price. Because of the rampant fraud, some U.S. states, such as Connecticut, have cracked down on the standards by which virgin and extra-virgin olive oil may be labeled.

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