Discovering New Whisky Worlds at the End of Every Dram

Many whisky lovers feel a sense of sadness at the end of a good dram. But for Ernie Button, a drained glass is an opportunity to dive even deeper. When he’s done with a drink, rather than just putting the dirty glass into the dishwasher, Button uses it to create otherworldly pieces of art.

Button’s collection of photographs, called “Vanishing Spirits: The Dried Remains of Single Malt Scotch,” shows how every glass of whisky can yield unique patterns, “like snowflakes,” he says. Here’s how it works: whisky that dries in the bottom of a glass does so irregularly, leaving behind dregs or rings. They aren’t easy to spot as-is, but Button places the glass (he prefers flat-bottomed rocks glasses) on a light or flashlight with a color filter. Then he photographs the glass, creating an image that could have come from outer space, or from a microscope plate.

Photographer Ernie Button (self portrait)

The scientific aspect of this hobby isn’t just surface-deep, either; Button’s photo experiments led him to co-author a scientific paper on the physics of whisky evaporation, and why it creates such unique patterns. Other spirits don’t display the same phenomenon when dried, leading Button and a research team at Princeton to conclude that barrel aging is a key part of the process.

While photography is a serious hobby for Button, he works as a speech-language pathologist by day. A few years ago, he collaborated with Macallan to create a limited-edition gift package featuring one of his photographs, but otherwise, the project is a labor of love. “It’s fascinating to me that a clear liquid will leave these patterns after it’s dried,” he says. “You’re not seeing anything in the actual liquid, but this is what it’s leaving as its residue.”

Button has been photographing the remains of whisky for over ten years, but he’s still finding new ways to approach his art. Recently he has drawn inspiration from Brian Kinsman, the master blender at Glenfiddich who has spearheaded its Experimental Series. “Brian’s work with the experimental whiskies has really been inspirational for me, because that’s kind of what I’m doing,” Button says. “I’m experimenting with whisky from a visual arts perspective. Still loving the whiskey, still enjoying it, still finding my way through the whisky world, but I’ve been taking further steps to really experiment with what he’s doing and try and represent that visually.”

The project has given him a different perspective on whisky. “I like to think of it as drinks and a show.,” he says “You know, because you’re having drinks and the whisky will leave you a present after you’ve enjoyed the last drop.”

Glenmorangie Tùsail 403

My Whisky Obsession: Ernie Button

Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Obsession: Photographing the patterns of dried whisky in glasses
Time spent on it per month: 15-80 hours. “It depends on how much we’ve been drinking.”
Amount of money spent on it per month: “More than I ever thought I would.”
Number of whiskies owned: 50+
Number of whiskies photographed: At least 20 different brands with multiple expressions of each
Favorite whisky: Balvenie, Macallan, Glenmorangie

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Whisky Advocate: How did this hobby begin—with the whisky drinking or the photography?

Ernie Button: Whisky drinking came first, and actually, I have to credit my wife with that. She came from a whisky drinking family, so I came to know and appreciate whisky through her.

It really started by accident in that we had a glass of whisky the night before and the glasses were left out on the table. As I was cleaning them up the next morning, taking them to the dishwasher, I noticed that there was something in the bottom. When I held it up to the light and inspected a little bit further, there were these beautiful lacy lines filling the bottom. We don’t drink out of the Glencairn glasses; we typically drink out of the flat-bottom tumbler-type glasses, and so that really enhances this process, because it needs a flat surface to dry on.

I’ve been taking photographs my entire life, but have been serious about exhibiting them and pursuing it as a passion for about 20, 25 years now. And so I was in love with photography and finding whisky, and when I saw the patterns, it just kind of clicked. I took it into my studio and started experimenting with, how can I photograph this? How can I bring the lines out, what do I need to make this happen? That’s what started it all, just an accidental discovery.

Glenfiddich IPA 2438 (Photo by Ernie Button)

WA: How did you end up as one of the authors of a scientific paper?

Ernie: I used to be very dogmatic that [whatever I photographed] had to be what I drank the previous night and just let it dry organically. After about a year or two of doing that, I started to experiment. I took a drop or two of the Glenfiddich 12, dried it on a piece of glass. Took a drop or two of the 15, and same thing with the 18—let it dry. I was hoping for some big revelation about how an 18 dries like this and a 12 dries like that.

Unfortunately, they dry the same. So it got me thinking, okay, what is causing these patterns to form? I went about testing different alcohols: wine, beer, tequila, rum, vodka, gin, cognac. The only one that left a hint of this pattern was rum, but everything else did not leave a pattern. Jim Beam came out with something called Jacob’s Ghost, a clear whiskey. That did not leave any mark, so I thought, obviously it’s something to do with the aging process. And so once I was done with that, I was stumped. I went to Google and was trying to type in these whisky patterns, whisky marks, anything, and nothing was coming up.

So I typed in fluid mechanics, Harvard, and art—Harvard because I thought if anybody is researching something like this, it would be at a school like that. One of the first names that popped up was Dr. Howard Stone out of Princeton who used to work at Harvard. I emailed him, asked him my questions, and he was one of the nicest guys. He responded pretty promptly and we started up a dialogue about this whisky-drying phenomenon. He was the director of the complex fluids group at Princeton University, so I really hit upon the right person. And so he was intrigued enough by this phenomenon that he said, ‘Well, let’s do some research.’

They would come back and ask me questions, but they were really the ones doing the lab work. They credit me with finding this and fine-tuning the experiments and pointing them in the direction of what whiskies will make this and what won’t. There was not active lab participation, but active participation.

WA: It must be very gratifying to get an answer to your question that you started out researching.

Ernie: It was a thrilling moment, that’s for sure. I never thought I’d be published in a physics journal.

Glenlivet 162 (Photo by Ernie Button)

WA: Pictures of whisky typically all show the same thing: a glass with some brown liquid in it. Your photos present whisky in an almost otherworldly manner. What was your thought process when developing this style?

Ernie: It was really the form following the function. When I would see this phenomenon, if I tried to photograph it on a white or a light background, it wouldn’t show up. I really wanted to emphasize the beauty of these lines and how interesting they were. I found that photographing them against a black background worked the best. The glasses or the glass surface that I would dry it on would have these dust marks or imperfections, and they would be like stars. And so they began to take on this natural space-like quality to the point where I’ve been making planets out of these whisky images.

WA: You mainly photograph scotch. Is there a reason for that other than the fact that you just prefer to drink scotch?

Ernie: That’s how it evolved, and I’m so far down the scotch path that it’s just what I stick with. We do enjoy some American whiskeys and bourbons, but I haven’t made any formal images with them. I’ve tested them and they make wonderful images. It works with most whiskies with and without an “e.”

WA: Are there any whiskies you’ve tried it didn’t work with?

Ernie: Yes. There was one that was finished in a cognac cask, and it didn’t make a pattern. There’s another one that didn’t and I reached out to [the distillery] and they really didn’t want to talk much with me. But it was confusing why this particular whiskey was not making it whereas most others will. I think it has something to do with the sugar content. If something is finished in a wine cask like the Balvenie Portwood 21, the rings are much more cloudy. They’re not as clear and linear…Age doesn’t have anything to do with it. As long as it’s been aged in an oak barrel, it will produce lines.

Planet Signet 181 (Photo by Ernie Button)

WA: Do certain distilleries have signature patterns?

Ernie: The one that I can always pick out is Glenlivet. For whatever reason, their lines look slightly different from everyone else’s. Glenfiddich Project XX is producing some of the most beautiful lines that I’ve seen created. Glenmorangie Tùsail made just stellar lines. Of course, all of these whiskies taste fantastic. I don’t want to disregard that—we’re enjoying these, we’re drinking these—but from an artistic perspective, I’m asking why is Tùsail or Project XX producing such fantastic results?

WA: Has photographing the glass after you’ve enjoyed the whisky changed the way that you actually approach it when you’re drinking the whisky?

Ernie: It has increased the enjoyment, because it’s giving me something beyond just a finely crafted drink. For me personally, it’s giving me something after all the whisky’s gone. It’s allowing me to create artwork with it, which is pretty cool.

WA: Going forward, do you have other ideas for the project?

Ernie: I’d like to explore some video, show the whisky drying, that process. I’m continuing to try and expand the images—kind of like it evolved into planets, evolving into something next, which I’m not quite sure about. I did have the idea of, when do these rings form? When exactly is it possible for these patterns to show up? Is it one month in a cask, is it three months in a cask? That’s my next question, and some of the folks over at Macallan were kind enough to get me some of those younger spirits, so I’m going to be doing some projects or some experimentation with that.

I don’t earn my living from photography; I do it because I’m passionate about it. I find it interesting. But it’s not where I make my income, so I never expected this project to come about, but I’m certainly thankful that it did. It really opened my eyes up to the world of whisky.

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