Art in a Whisky Glass, Neatly Explained

Ernie Button, a photographer in Phoenix, found art at the bottom of a whisky glass. Howard A. Stone, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Princeton, found the science in the art.

Eight years ago, Mr. Button was about to wash the glass when he noticed that leftover drops of Scotch had dried into a chalky but unexpectedly beautiful film. “When I lifted it up to the light, I noticed these really delicate, fine lines on the bottom,” he recalled, “and being a photographer for a number of years before this, I’m like, ‘Hmm, there’s something to this.’ ”

He and his wife began experimenting. The Scotches with smoky, peaty flavors, like those from the islands of Islay and Skye in western Scotland, were inconsistent, needing more trial and error to produce the picturesque ring patterns. By contrast, those from the valley around the River Spey in northeastern Scotland “seem like they’ll work every time,” Mr. Button said.

“It takes just a drop or two to create a really nice image,” he said. He started photographing the residues, using colored lights “to give it that otherworldly effect,” he said.

He found Peter J. Yunker, then a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who had done research on the coffee ring effect, produced when a puddle of coffee dries unevenly, leaving a dark brown stain along the edges. Dr. Yunker, who was busy wrapping up his doctorate before heading to a position at Harvard, was not able to help.

Undeterred, Mr. Button typed “fluid mechanics” and “art” into Google. Up popped a list of search results that included Dr. Stone. Mr. Button emailed. Dr. Stone responded.

“I remember it wasn’t clear what we were looking at,” Dr. Stone said.

But he was intrigued, even though he is not much of a drinker. “I’m not sure I’d even recognize the taste of whisky,” Dr. Stone said. “It seemed a nice question to investigate.”

After buying some single malt Scotch — Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Macallan — he and scientists in his laboratory, including Hyoungsoo Kim, began their research. They were able to create similar rings, and then they started making their own mixtures of particles and liquids to decipher what was happening.

In the coffee ring effect, water drying at the edges is replenished from the center of the droplet, and that fluid flow carries particles to the edge, forming the dark ring.

Art in a Whisky Glass, Neatly Explained

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