Whisky’s influence on the arts is well documented. Numerous writers, artists, actors, and composers have cited whisky as their muse. But seldom is whisky itself the artwork. But there are exceptions to the rule. I’d like to share one such story. It’s a story about an empty glass of whisky and a man with great powers of perception.
The man’s name is Ernie Button. He is a gifted photographer blessed with an ability to recognize raw beauty inherent in ordinary objects. Our story begins with Ernie stacking glasses into the dishwasher; a routine task that would have major consequences and lead Ernie on an incredible journey.
As he was putting away a used whisky glass, he noticed an unusual pattern on the bottom. Upon closer inspection, he noted that thin, lacy lines filled the bottom. Intrigued, he set the glass aside and continued with his chore. But his artistic juices had already begun to flow.
Later, in his studio, he experimented with different whiskies and different glasses. He discovered that each time the whisky evaporated it left behind unique patterns, much like a snowflake.
It was at this point that his creativity kicked into high-gear. Using a 55mm lens and extension tubes, he began creating a series of macro images. Button used a combination of colored lights, flashlights, and desktop lights, to change the colors and intensity of light. By doing so, he created various patterns and forms on the surface of the glass.
But to achieve the results he desired required extensive experimentation. It seems that not all whisky glasses are alike. The interior surface of each glass is unique in form and surface area. And scratches on the exterior of the glass alter light filtration, which affects the illumination of the patterns. Add to that each type of whisky yields different results.
Over time Ernie would experiment with almost 100 whiskies.
Ernie satisfied his intellectual curiosity as he became familiar with the mechanical process. It was at this point his emotional, creative thought process took over. For inspiration, he drew upon a collaborative project he worked on nearly a decade before. On that project, he worked with a painter who envisioned miniature landscapes formed by inclusions trapped in amber agates.
With that knowledge in mind, Ernie set about to add ‘life’ to the bottom of the glass, creating the illusion of landscape, terrestrial or extra-terrestrial.”
The images captured in the Vanishing Spirits series are stunning. Upon first glance, they conjure up thoughts of intergalactic travel. Button acknowledges the photos reference outer space “. . . as if the image was taken of space; something that the Hubble telescope may have taken . . .”
But anyone familiar with Button’s work knows he is a master at illusion. For instance, several images in his Cerealism series—Bales of Shredded Wheat 2 or Grape Nuts Dune 8—allude to a rural landscape. Closer inspection reveals how easily he fools us. The bales of wheat are Shredded Wheat cereal; the rocky dune, Grape Nuts.
In the Vanishing Spirits series, he does not impose a celestial interpretation on the viewer. In fact, he composes many of his images within a circle. According to Button, “The circular image references a drinking glass, typically a circle, and what the consumer might see if they were to look at the bottom of the glass after the scotch has dried.” In other words, letting the sheer beauty of the complex whisky image stand on its own.
Celestial references are perhaps the most obvious, but the more you study the photos, the more varied the interpretation.
For example, in Balvenie Doublewood 101 we might see a planet. But upon closer scrutiny, might it also be hyperthermal vents on the ocean floor? Other images such as Highland Park 175 and 177 suggest a moonlit aerial photo of an ocean beach. And what of Glenlivet 146, perhaps the dunes of the Sahara? And how about Ardbeg 124 and Glenfiddich 15, cellular biology anyone?
Like whisky itself, the beauty of Button’s work lies in its complexity.
The Science Behind the Images
Here is where the story takes an interesting twist that would lead Button on an incredible journey. Thus far, he was pleased with his work. But perplexed as to why he achieved different results with different liquids, in particular, different whiskies.
Somewhere along the line, he knew that scientists researched the stain left by a coffee ring. It too has a certain aesthetic appeal and had given rise to an artistic expression of its own; the “grunge coffee ring effect.” He learned that the science behind that phenomenon was fluid mechanics.
So, he reached out to Dr. Howard Stone, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University’s Complex Fluids Group. Button supplied him with images and some background on his project.
At first Dr. Stone and his team were not sure what to make of the photos. But professional intuition led them to believe it was worth their time to investigate. It seems particle distribution is critical in some manufacturing processes. Therefore, understanding the whisky phenomenon might have practical applications such as improved ink for printers.
What intrigued them was the settlement pattern, an almost uniform distribution of particles across the bottom of the glass. This pattern was unlike the coffee ring effect where the particles settle toward the outer ring.
Coffee Versus Whisky
Previous research determined that the water in a coffee droplet dries first along the edges of the droplet. As the water flows toward the outer ring it brings with it small particles of coffee. As the water along the outer edges evaporates, it leaves behind the particles creating a dark circular image.
But unlike coffee, whisky is a binary liquid consisting of water and ethanol. The whisky solution also contains an unidentified surfactant and plant-derived polymers. The surfactant lowers the surface tension of water. Lower surface tension increases the solubility of organic compounds. Thus, unifying the distribution of particles in the solution.
Water and ethanol evaporate at different rates which causes the liquid in the droplet to flow in circular patterns. This flow pattern is known as the Marangoni effect. As evaporation proceeds, the concentration of polymers in the droplet increases. Gradually they adhere to the surface of the glass. Once positioned they capture the particles suspended in the solution as the liquid flows to the edges. This results in the particle’s uniform distribution across the glass’ bottom.
In March 2016 Dr. Stone and his team published their findings in Physical Review Letters, the world’s premier physics letter journal. The publication is the American Physical Society’s flagship publication.
Macallan’s Masters of Photography
Our story does not end there. Button’s work had caught the attention of Ken Grier. Mr. Grier is the Director of Malts for The Macallan distillery and chief curator of their Masters of Photography collection. Since 2008, The Macallan distillery has worked with famous photographers, celebrating their art in a series of limited edition releases.
Photographers honored to date include Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino, Albert Watson, Rankin Elliot Erwitt and Steven Klien. Also, the distillery has worked with Nick Veasey and Daido Moriyama for a limited release promotion.
Button was commissioned to create 12 Vanishing Spirits images for the collection. Macallan’s design team skillfully incorporated Button’s work on the box; The Macallan Estate Reserve is the only release to have an image on the bottle’s label. The Macallan also included a wooden bottle stopper with the purchase. A corresponding Vanishing Spirits image adorns the top of the stopper.
Although the bottles were released two years ago, it is still possible to obtain them online. The Whisky Exchange currently lists a bottle of Ernie Button Estate Reserve for $396.88. The Whisky Auctioneer advertises a bottle of Macallan amber for $100.
A Prepared Mind
So, there you have it; my story about a man and a dirty whisky glass. Ernie Button is a fortunate man. You may attribute his success to a chance encounter, a lucky twist of fate. But you would be wrong. Luck had little to do with it. Button earned his good fortune.
As the Hungarian scientist, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said: “A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.”
Ernie Button has a prepared mind.
Ernie Button’s Website:
Online Galleries where you can buy Ernie’s Prints:
To learn more about the Vanishing Spirits series I recommend the following:
Physical Review Letters
Whisky, Drams & More