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Protecting the UK Scotch Whisky sector

Project Case Study: Scotch Whisky Research Institute in collaboration with the Open University

Collaboration with Open University helps SWRI to enhance counterfeit detection of Scotch Whisky

The Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) is the industry’s Research & Technology Organisation. It is funded by its member companies, who together account for the majority of the industry.

SWRI’s main function is to carry out pre-competitive, fundamental and applied research across the entire Scotch Whisky production process, from barley to bottle. It also provides day-to-day technical support to its members and offers a range of analytical services.

Its primary area of expertise is Scotch Whisky, however many of its members have diverse portfolios and interests in other spirit drink categories. To reflect this, SWRI also carries out research and provides advice on other distilled spirits such as gin, rum, vodka, tequila and non-Scotch whiskies.

The organisation is based in purpose built laboratories with the specialised equipment required to carry out all aspects of spirit drinks research, including analytical chemistry, sensory evaluation and cereal science. Many of its analytical methods are accredited by UKAS (the United Kingdom Accreditation Service) and this is underpinned by a rigorous quality system and participation in a number of analytical proficiency schemes.

Using GCMS to enhance authentication

The SWRI carries out research into the authentication of suspect whisky products sourced globally, on behalf of its members – representing approximately 90 per cent of the production capacity of the Scotch Whisky sector – as well as the distilling industry and enforcement agencies.

Each whisky produces a complex profile of hundreds of organic compounds, a pattern that can be used to fingerprint the whisky brand.

SWRI wanted to evaluate innovative gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GCMS) techniques to enhance its authentication capabilities and more accurately detect counterfeit products and protect one of the UK’s largest export sectors, worth £4.7bn* to the UK economy.

SPRINT enables exploration of 2D gas chromatography techniques

To provide support for this particular challenge, the SWRI signed up to SPRINT to access funded expertise and technology in the Space Instrumentation Discipline at The Open University (OU).

Working with The Open University, the SWRI is exploring a range of comprehensive, 2D gas chromatography techniques to separate the complex mixture of volatile species present and identify even the most subtle differences between samples. Initially, this is a laboratory-based solution but the longer-term aim is to utilise the OU space instrumentation expertise to jointly develop a small, rugged, field portable system for global use.

“Help us to combat counterfeiting”

Professor James Brosnan, Director of Research at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute says: “As a premium product, Scotch Whisky is a counterfeiting target in both mature and developing markets. The Scotch Whisky Research Institute looks forward to exploring the potential of the advanced techniques developed at the Open University to help us combat counterfeiting. Scientific progress is most effective when different ideas and expertise can collaborate and I welcome the innovative drive of the SPRINT programme to put space science to work on Earth.”

Dr Geraint (Taff) Morgan from the School of Physical Sciences at The Open University adds: “The Open University has previously used advanced gas chromatography/mass spectrometry techniques in the development of the Ptolemy space instrument, part of the Rosetta mission that determined that the building blocks of life are present on a comet. Through the SPRINT programme, we will now be leveraging this expertise and our network of strategic partners to support the SWRI’s anti-counterfeiting research and service provision for the distilling industry.”

*According to Scottish Whisky Association figures, relating to January-December 2018