Quirks and Quarks

Whiskey-sipping artificial tongue has a taste for the good stuff

A group of researchers in Germany spent 1,000 Euros of their own money on high-end whiskey in order to test a new "artificial tongue" they have developed.
Various samples of whisky are seen in the whisky library of Suntory Holdings' Yamazaki Distillery in Shimamoto town, Osaka prefecture. Yamazaki's Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013 trumped more than a thousand challengers to be named the world's best whisky . (REUTERS/Thomas Peter)

A dedicated human connoisseur can tell a 10 year old Glenfiddich from an 18 year old Macallan, but that kind of fine distinction has been beyond machines.

Until now. 

Thanks to Dr. Uwe Bunz, an organic chemist at Heildelberg University in Germany, the day of the robot whiskey connoisseur may soon be upon us.  He's invented a new artificial tongue that can tell the good stuff from the rotgut.  His sensor fluoresces differently depending on the unique properties of the whiskey he tests, and a machine learning algorithm has been able to take that pattern of glowing light, and associate it with particular whiskies, so that he can identify the spirits by type and age. 

This research was partially self-funded, as Dr. Bunz hesitated to charge fine whiskey to his academic budget.  So he spent nearly 1,000 Euros of his own money on samples.  Fortunately there was lots left over for his liquor cabinet, so he has been able to enjoy the leftovers.

A sensitive chemical "tasting" sensor has a lot of potential applications, including spotting counterfeit products.