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This synthetic “tongue” used to distinguish whiskies with glowing liquids could be helpful for drug safety

This could be used for drug safety

This image shows a row of the glowing polymer dyes that make up the sensor array lined up in a row
Photo: Uwe Bunz

Everyone has that friend who claims they can distinguish between two drinks that, to everyone else, taste exactly the same. It’s hard to tell if they’re lying, but scientists have now created an artificial tongue that can actually do the same thing for whiskies — and this method could one day be helpful for drug safety.

It’s not just imagination: a lot of whiskies really are very similar, and the average person probably can’t tell one from another. For a study published today in the journal Chem, scientists tried to develop a way to distinguish whiskey at the chemical level. So, they created sensors that work just like the different taste receptors on a tongue, and used them to differentiate more than 30 different whiskies. This technique, unlike others, is useful because you can identify something using the original mixture, says co-author Uwe Bunz, an organic chemist at Germany’s Heidelberg University. Most of the time, you identify a mixture by separating its various parts by weight. You don’t need to do that here because you can just have the overall mixture interact with different solutions.

Our tongues have different receptors for different flavors — like sweet versus salty versus bitter. When you eat something, the molecules in the food interact with the different receptors to create the overall taste of a pickle, or Dijon mustard.

The research team’s sensors don’t look like a tongue, but they work the same way. It’s a series of tubes filled with a solution of different colors. All of them are fluorescent, meaning that they glow when you shine a blacklight on them. When you add a drop of whiskey, the chemicals in the whiskey interact with the solution to make it either more or less fluorescent.

Next, Bunz used a machine called a plate reader to measure exactly how much the whiskies changed the solution. From this, they found a unique pattern of intensities for each of the different whiskies. “You can even discriminate Irish whiskies from Scotch-blended, and single malt from double malt,” says Bunz.

The group has done the same thing with different white wines and, next up, will experiment with red wines. It’s not just about alcohol, though: in the future, this could be used to tell fake drugs apart from real ones.