Tag Archives: Whiskey

Whiskey ‘webs’ can tell you if your bourbon is genuine

Credit: ACS Nano.

The coffee ring effect is a phenomenon familiar to coffee lovers and those who share homes or offices with them. Although coffee may seem to have magical properties, this dark elixir is really just tiny particles of coffee beans suspended in water. The dark ring is caused by the high concentration of particles around the outer edge of the spill.

Like the brew itself, the coffee ring effect has fascinated scientists for decades. Now, researchers have turned their attention to another liquid with, let’s say, intriguing physical and chemical properties: whiskey.

Stuart Williams, Associate Professor at the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Louisville, studied the mechanisms behind the formation of web-like patterns of dried whiskey droplets. The results of the study suggest that different kinds of American whiskey form distinct patterns, which could help companies and consumers alike identify counterfeit spirits.

“This study was initiated from a simple question – can we tell the difference between whiskey types (age, brand, etc.) from looking at the pattern after its droplet evaporated? There have been a plethora of studies that have looked at such patterns from coffee, to blood, to polymers. More notably, there was a 2016 paper by Howard Stone’s group, where they observed that whiskey left a thin uniform film at high proof,” Williams told ZME Science.

“I had a case of bourbon whiskey (I was conducting a different study for Brown Forman) when I was on my sabbatical visiting Dr. Orlin Velev at North Carolina State University. We also observed thin films at high proofs, but we unexpectedly came across these fascinating patterns when we diluted them further, an unusual phenomenon that we wanted to pursue further,” the researcher added.

Williams and colleagues noticed that drops of diluted American whiskeys formed distinct patterns when dried on a glass surface. This was not the case for their Scotch or Canadian counterparts.

“We stumbled upon these structures by accident – we were expecting thin films or ‘coffee rings’ or some hybrid of the two, but these were unexpected. I remember sitting in a meeting with Dr. Velev where we showed him these web-like structures for the first time and he was fascinated, encouraging us to look into this further. When a world-renowned scientist (with years of experience) is fascinated by something you pay attention! We focused on trying to determine what fundamental mechanism was occurring and why these structures formed, which is the foundation for this paper,” Williams said.

The team employed time-lapse microscopy in order to examine the droplets of diluted American whiskey as they evaporated.

This analysis showed that non-volatile compounds (phenols, aromatics, and esters) clumped together and were expelled to the surface of the droplet, forming monolayers.

As the surface area of the droplet decreased due to evaporation, the monolayers collapsed, leaving behind web-like strands.

These web patterns are distinct to each type of American whiskey, which is supposed to have a unique combination of solutes. In tests that compared their lab samples to unknown samples, the researchers could identify the brand of whiskey 90% of the time.

The results, which were published this week in the journal ACS Nano, show that whiskey webs can be a reliable indicator for distinguishing genuine bourbon from counterfeits.

“We are currently assessing methods of doing this at home; in other words, we want to find a (very) robust testing procedure that is portable and repeatable. We have found out that temperature, humidity, and other environmental factors influence the result. Although the sensitivity of this technique provides its own challenges, it also inherently enables sensitivity within the testing procedure itself. Also, I’m mostly working from home nowadays (due to COVID-19) and I am using various smartphone lenses and USB digital microscopes to conduct some ‘at home’ trials,” Williams said.

The whiskey webs are not only fascinating from a scientific perspective, they’re also quite visually stunning. Williams and colleagues have set up a digital art gallery where you can see how various brands of bourbon form webs under a microscope. These were also displayed at various whiskey themed events but also art galleries like the ACCelerate Festival at the Smithsonian.

In the future, the researchers would like to continue their work, extending the fundamental principles of monolayer collapse to other fields of science.

“We want to apply this work towards fundamental investigations of monolayer collapse, which is applicable to many fields beyond bourbon. For example, monolayer collapse is of interest in studies that investigate biological lung surfactant mixtures. Conducting fundamental studies using microliter droplets enables rapid, parallel testing of heterogeneous surfactant mixtures, streamlining such investigations,” Williams said.

Scientists discover drought-resistant gene in barley

Credit: Pixabay.

All crops face increasing stress at the hand of climate change, which, in turn, will weaken our food supply unless we take action.

British researchers at Heriot-Watt University have recently made an important contribution in this regard. After five years of painstaking work, their new study isolated a single gene, called HvMYB1, that increases the survivability of barley against drought.

Securing food… and whiskey!

The findings might have dramatic consequences for the cereal industry, which is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate changed-induced droughts.

Warmer temperatures can amplify the impacts of drought by enhancing evaporation from soils, making periodic droughts worse than they would be under cooler conditions. Droughts can also persist through a “positive feedback” loop where very dry soils and diminished plant cover can further suppress rainfall in an already dry area.

The researchers led by Peter Morris performed experiments in which they increased the expression of HvMYB1 during simulated conditions of drought. These genetically modified plants were able to survive prolonged periods of drought compared to unmodified control plants.

All of this sounds promising especially after last year’s drought in Europe caused depressingly low yields. In 2018, barley production suffered an 8% loss equivalent to hundreds of millions of tonnes of barley flushed down the drain.

Barley is the main ingredient in both whiskey and beer, both industries worth billions and which employ tens of thousands of people.

In the future, the researchers plan on breeding more improved strains of barley. What’s interesting is that virtually all plants carry a similar gene, so this research could have wide implications across the whole cereal industry.

The findings were reported in the journal Plant Physiology and Biochemistry.


Why adding water to whiskey makes it taste better, or so some scientists claim


Credit: Pixabay.

In some circles, you’ll see the grimmest faces if you decide to order whiskey with ice in public. At the end of the day, though, you might argue that De gustibus non est disputandum, and leave the snobs with a hanging upper lip.

But if science is truly the best tool we have for objective inquiry, then adding at least a couple drops of water to your glass of amber liquor really ought to improve the experience. According to a pair of biochemists in Sweden water molecules interact with flavor molecules found in whiskey, an interplay that ultimately enriches the taste of the drink.

Specifically, water molecules interact with flavor molecules called phenols. Smokey blends such as those famously sourced from the Scottish island of Islay are particularly rich in a specific phenol called guaiacol.

When water is present, guaiacol hops along and rises with the H2O to the air-liquid interface. It’s at this interface, basically the drink’s surface, that the whiskey is consumer first and thus it makes sense that adding at least a bit of water to whiskey helps enhance its taste.

Schematic of 2-methoxy phenol, guaiacol. Credit: Scientific Reports.

Schematic of 2-methoxy phenol, guaiacol. Credit: Scientific Reports.

The findings suggest that the alcohol content has a big word to say. When ethanol concentration in the whiskey was less than 45%,  guaiacol was found near the surface of the liquid. The molecules were driven further down into the solution the concentration exceeded 59% though. Previously, spectroscopic studies have previously revealed that alcohol and water undergo incomplete mixing which might explain this behaviour.

Distillers add water to their whiskey anyway, we have to say. The spirit is essentially made by distilling fermented grains like barley or rye. Distilled malt whiskeys typically contain around 70% alcohol by volume (vol-%) before it is aged in barrels for at least three years. This maturation lowers the alcohol content but the concentration is still strong hovering at  55–65 vol-%. Distillers then add water before bottling until a stable 40% alcohol is reached, which not only alters the intoxication potency but also the taste.

“Our findings …could contribute to optimising the production of spirits for desired tastes,” Bjorn Karlsson and Ran Friedman of Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

At this point, it should be noted that their findings are based on computer simulations of the complex chemical interplay of H2O and flavor molecules. There were no volunteers to subjectively rate the taste.

identifying whiskey

Chemists develop innovative way to spot fake whiskey — using glowing dyes

identifying whiskey

Image via Pixabay.

Sometimes, science means a lot of effort and sacrifice — walking days and weeks through inhospitable terrain, documenting what you see and then continuing the research in the lab. Other times, it means analyzing many years of statistical data to draw a conclusion. But sometimes, it means buying 1,000 euro worth of whiskey. From your own money.

“We had to use our own money,” says study co-author Uwe Bunz of Heidelberg University. “You can’t just use state funds, otherwise I think our higher-up administration would be fairly unhappy.”

In a study published in the Journal Chem, he describes how he put the new collection to good use, developing a technique to identify not only its age, blend, taste, and origin — but also spotting a counterfeit. In the US alone, whiskey sales yielded revenues of over $3.1 billion in 2015, so there’s a significant market for applying this method. To make it even more interesting, Bunz says the same method could be applied for wines, juices, and even drugs.

He and his colleagues developed several water-soluble fluorescent dyes. Typically, the dyes would glow a green or blue-green hue under blacklight. But if a bit of whiskey is added, the dye either glows stronger or gets dimmer. By mixing whiskey samples with several dyes in several vials, a pattern of brightness and dimmness starts to emerge, and this is the “fingerprint” of the drink. But it’s much better than a fingerprint.

“From fingerprints, you cannot normally deduce what ethnic background you are, or what your height is, or how old you are,” notes Bunz.

When you start to plot the results on a graph, you start to see patterns forming. Whiskeys of a specific age start to form a group, as do whiskeys of a specific blend status (i.e. single malt). The more whiskeys you put into the graph, the better the system gets because more patterns form.

All in all, they analyzed 33 whiskeys of American, Scottish, or Irish origin. The test itself is quite efficient: for starters, it only requires a very small quantity of liquid. Researchers ran each sample six times, and this “cost” only one milliliter of whiskey. A total of 32 samples can be analyzed concurrently, after 15 minutes of interacting with the dyes.

Of course, the technique isn’t perfect. Researchers report an accuracy of 99%, which means you still have a 1% error. Bunz argues that this is because many characteristics still cluster together because not enough different samples have been added into the system. Also, a “master whiskey library” would have to be developed in a lab, to be made available worldwide.

But scientists say this is a much more efficient method than those currently used for analyzing whiskeys (gas or liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry). The fluorescent dye method is much more accurate, being able to differentiate between several groups and ages of whiskeys, whereas with chromatography, “their discrimination is much more coarse and you cannot resolve the different groups.” The other method is also more expensive and takes a longer time to get going. Bunz estimates that a sampling machine would cost about 10,000 euros to build, and the consumable plates and dyes only cost a few cents. The dyes would take about a month to synthesize, but from a batch, you could make around 200,000 samples.

It’s an interesting study which will definitely have many industry executives lifting their eyebrows, but at this moment, it’s not clear whether industries will actually try to implement it. Bunz says that he hasn’t heard from anyone working with alcoholic drinks, but German juice manufacturer Sonnländer has already expressed some interest. The team will soon start joint experiments.

In the meantime, one problem still remains: Bunz still has 33 different whiskeys at home, from which he only took 1 milliliter. But he says his friends don’t mind.

“I basically have 30 different whiskeys at home,” says Bunz. “But I’m not a whiskey drinker. I’m a red wine drinker, so some of my guests are highly delighted when they see my collection.”

Journal Reference: Jinsong Han, Chao Ma, Benhua Wang, Markus Bender, Maximilian Bojanowski, Marcel Hergert, Kai Seehafer, Andreas Herrmann’Correspondence information about the author Andreas HerrmannEmail the author Andreas Herrmann, Uwe H.F. Bunz, Uwe H.F. Bunz — A Hypothesis-Free Sensor Array Discriminates Whiskies for Brand, Age, and Taste. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chempr.2017.04.008

Ballantine creates whiskey glass to be used in zero G, spill free

Another full and tiring day is over, and you just want to unwind with a nice glass of whiskey. You pour yourself a shot, and take up the glass, gleefully anticipating the aged flavor and warming flow of the liquor but then, disaster strikes. The drink floats up lazily into the cabin, in a most unglasslike sphere – you’re an astronaut, and you can’t get your buzz on, foiled by zero G.

If there’s one thing we at ZME Science support wholeheartedly it’s drinking…For science! We’ve already told you how Japanese distillery Suntory and Socttish Ardbeg Distillery sent samples of the amber nectar into orbit to study how the aging process can be improved when gravity is taken out of the mix.

Suntory’s packs of liquor were outfitted with straws, but it’s unlikely the astronauts manning the ISS would take a sip in such a crude manner.

But worry not, for Scottish manufacturer Ballantine comes to the aid of space-dwellers the world round (and beyond) with a new, high-tech glass that promises to make getting hammered with style in space a reality.

“With style” here is used loosely.
Image via pics-about.space

To make the glass space-friendly, Ballantine relied on James Parr from the Open Space Agency to engineer a system that would solve a two-fold problem: pouring the liquor inside, and getting it out only when drinking.

The solution Parr came up with is a futuristic glass that has a convex gold plate embedded in its base. This metal sheet provides enough surface tension to hold the liquid down. The drink then passes through a spiraling channel in the form of a helix, built around the glass’ side walls, reaching up to a golden mouthpiece. It was successfully tested in a microgravity environment at the Zarm Drop Tower in Bremen, Germany, Wired reports.

Image via 3dprint

Most of the materials including the gold base and the “glass” itself are 3-D-printed. The “glass” itself is a medical-grade PLA plastic since actual glass is fragile and could break easily as it floats in microgravity.

The tiny hole you see in the bottom of the glass is a valve through which the drink can be poured into the glass. Gold plate was chosen over other metals since it’s chemically unreactive and won’t spoil the liquor’s taste. But what good is it to have the whiskey contained if the glass is just gonna float around the spaceship? Well, it won’t – a magnet is built-in beneath the base plate to hold the glass down on magnetic surfaces.

They also put together an awesome presentation video for the glass:

Ballantine published the details of the process in an article for Medium.


Japan will send whiskey to the ISS – all in the name of science

Distillers have long been interested in the particularities of the aging process, and how to mature the drink to bring out that specific, mellow flavor we search for in a glass of quality whiskey. Japanese based distillers Suntory set their hopes high for what they feel is the next big thing for whiskey aging – as high as the ISS, to be specific. They announced earlier this week that several samples of their beverage will be sent to the ISS with the intent to study the “development of mellowness in alcoholic beverage through the use of a microgravity environment.”

”Results of collaborative researches have suggested the probability that mellowness develops by promoted formation of the high-dimensional molecular structure in the alcoholic beverage in environments where liquid convection is suppressed. ” according to Suntory’s statement.

For Science!

For Science!

The researchers at Suntory Global Innovation Center will send six samples of spirits into orbit with the help of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Launching from JAXA’s Tanegashima Space Centre later this month, the beverage payload will be conveyed to the Kibo module of the International Space Station (ISS), where research will show just how mellow space spirits taste.

The company is conducting the research to help it refine its scientific understanding of the molecular mechanism “that makes alcohol mellow”. The space maturation experiments are looking “to verify the effect of the convection-free state created by a microgravity environment to the mellowing of alcoholic beverage”.

The drinks will be divided into two groups. Group 1 samples will be aged for 1 year and Group 2 samples for 2 or more years, with the exact length of ageing for the longer batch to be decided at a later time. Control batches will be stored in Japan during the experiment period, and testers will analyse and compare the two sets at the conclusion of the ageing process.

How they’ll determine the results of the experiment won’t be anything as simple as an old-fashioned taste test, either (although that will also take place). Suntory intends to measure the samples’ substance diffusion and analyse the drinks’ high-dimensional structure by X-ray to see what effect the convection-free state has on the liquor.

Too much science!

Too much science!

This isn’t the first time we sent drinks to space (and surprisingly, it wasn’t drunk while there). A team of US researchers conducted a similar experiment between 2011 and 2014, launching a sample of Ardberg Scotch Whiskey into space for more than 1,000 days (the results have not yet been published), with a company spokesperson commenting:

“This is one small step for man but one giant leap for whisky.”