At first glance, the images created by Phoenix-based photographer Ernie Button might look like alien planets floating out in deep space. However, these vibrant spherical forms are actually found in the most unlikely of places—the bottom of a whiskey glass. The images are part of the photographer’s fascinating series, Vanishing Spirits: The Dried Remains of Single Malt Scotch, that explores the beauty and science behind how this alcoholic liquid flows.
Button’s project began when he was loading a Scotch glass into the dishwasher and noticed a patterned film on the bottom of the glass. “When I lifted it up to the light, I noticed these really delicate, fine lines on the bottom,” he recalls, “and being a photographer for a number of years before this, I’m like, ‘Hmm, there’s something to this.’ ” Through experimentation, Button found that a few drops of dried single malt Scotch leaves behind sediment in various patterns. “It’s a little like snowflakes in that every time the Scotch dries, the glass yields different patterns and results.”
Button uses a variety of colored lights to bring his images to life, resulting in extraterrestrial-like terrains that look like they were taken with a telescope. Each different type of whiskey results in a different image: Scotches with smoky, peaty flavors, such as those from the islands of Islay and Skye in western Scotland, were inconsistent, whereas, whiskeys from around the River Spey in northeastern Scotland produced pleasing patterns every time.
After several years creating photographic prints of various whiskeys, Button decided to explore the underlying science of how his images came to be. The photographer began working with a team of five scientists from Princeton who together performed a series of experiments. They found that the patterns are caused by surfactant molecules that lower the liquid’s surface tension. As a drop evaporates, the molecules collect and create a tension gradient that pulls liquid into abstract shapes (this is known as the Marangoni effect). At the same time, plant-derived polymers stick to the glass, providing a framework for the dazzling patterns to form.