Thursday, February 28, 2019

What are the biggest threats to humanity?

The primary threat is in the form of an induced environmental collapse.  Natural potential causes are in the form of massive Volcanism and a massive astroidal impactor much bigger than hit us 12,900 BP.  Both can be countered by building deep crustal refuges for humanity that can both house and also sustain.  We will be doing this soon enough once we have completely mastered the surface as it allows population to be housed without the excess cost of managing interaction with the surface biome.

We are not safe against a much hotter sun over a sustained period of time.   Since it is plausible that we will ultimately pass through the Sirius group for two thousand years, this is not a zero probability prospect. The only good news there is that we have done it many times and life survived, so underground refuges look good.

After that it is human caused disasters and we are actually well equipped to wrestle those under control.  So there we can be optimistic.  We can cause a lot of damage but we certainly know how to localize it.


What are the biggest threats to humanity?

By Simon Beard and Lauren Holt 
Centre for the Study of Existential Risk

15 February 2019

Human extinction may be the stuff of nightmares but there are many ways in which it could happen.

Popular culture tends to focus on only the most spectacular possibilities: think of the hurtling asteroid of the film Armageddon or the alien invasion of Independence Day.

While a dramatic end to humanity is possible, focusing on such scenarios may mean ignoring the most serious threats we face in today's world.

And it could be that we are able to do something about these. 

Volcanic threats
In 1815 an eruption of Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, killed more than 70,000 people, while hurling volcanic ash into the upper atmosphere.

It reduced the amount of sunlight hitting the surface of the Earth, triggering what has become known as the "year without a summer".

Lake Toba, at the other end of Sumatra, tells a still more sinister story. It was formed by a truly massive super-volcanic eruption 75,000 years ago, the impact of which was felt around the world.

It has been suggested that the event led to dramatic population decline in early humans, although this has recently been questioned.

But while the prospect of a super-volcanic eruption is terrifying, we should not worry too much. Super-volcanoes and other natural disasters, such as an asteroid striking Earth or a star exploding in our cosmic neighbourhood, are no more likely in 2019 than any other year. And that is not very likely.

Growing threats

The same cannot be said for many global threats induced by people.

For example, the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum both listed climate change and its effects as one of their top risks for 2019.

Recent UN talks heard climate change was already "a matter of life and death" for many regions. While many, including Sir David Attenborough, believe it could lead to the collapse of civilisations and the extinction of "much of the natural world".

The threats are complex and diverse, from killer heatwaves and rising sea levels to widespread famines and migration on a truly immense scale.

Also increasing are the potential risks from novel technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).

The scenarios range from increasingly sophisticated cyber-weapons that could hold an entire nation's data to ransom, to autonomous algorithms that could unwittingly cause a stock-market crash.

Another threat is the possibility of a nuclear war.

While many focus on rising tensions between global powers, new technologies may also be making us less safe.

This is because of both the "entanglement" of nuclear and conventional weapons and the risk that AI could help unleash nuclear war.

Another risk that may be increasing is that of global pandemics. Influenza, for example, is thought to kill an average of 700,000 people and cost the global economy $500bn (£391bn) per year.

Increasingly dense and mobile human populations have the potential to see new influenza strains spread easily. And this raises concerns about a future outbreak like the 1918 Spanish Flu, which killed up to 50 million people.

However, widespread vaccination programmes and other disease prevention measures help reduce this risk.

How to calculate the chance of an existential risk

Look at historical or geological records. We can keep track of some events such as super-volcanoes and asteroid impacts 

Find a natural precedent. When scientists explored the risk the Cern reactor might pose, they looked at similar environments that occur in stars 

Build a model. Scientists use sophisticated atmospheric models to explore the future of our climate
For threats that can't be modelled, scientists generate insights by engaging in war-gaming and other exercises 

The UK government also maintains a register of national risks, including floods, space weather and disease

A disruptive future

While these threats are real, the greatest danger we face in 2019, when viewed from a global perspective, probably lies elsewhere.

With almost eight billion people living on Earth, we are increasingly reliant upon global systems to sustain us. These range from the environment that provides us with food, water, clean air and energy, to the global economy that turns these into goods and services.

Yet, from declining levels of biodiversity to overextended infrastructure and supply chains, many of these systems are already stressed to breaking point. And rapid climate change is only making things worse.

Given this, it may be that global risks should not be defined by the size of the disaster that caused them, but by their potential to disrupt these vital systems.

The potential is hinted at in recent examples of cascading effects.

The 2010 eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull volcano killed no-one but closed air traffic over Europe for six days. And, in 2017, the relatively unsophisticated WannaCry ransomware attack shut down parts of the NHS and other organisations around the world.

Since almost everything we rely on also depends on a functioning electrical, computing and internet system, anything that would damage this - from a solar flare to a high atmosphere nuclear explosion - could cause very widespread harm. 

Disaster prevention

There may, however, be new ways to reduce this risk.

There is an old story of King Canute of the Danes commanding the sea to retreat. He knew he would be unable to hold back the tide and a similar sense of powerlessness can easily overtake us when we consider potential future catastrophes.

However, the truth is that the Danes have been pushing back their shoreline for generations: building dykes and draining marshes to protect themselves from the oncoming tide.

Sometimes it is better to protect ourselves by thinking of ways to make humanity more resilient to disasters that are to come.

And this could give us the best way of ensuring that 2019 - and beyond - are safe years for humanity.

Chased Through the Woods

Another Giant Sloth and real confirmation that they are lousy runners.  This time the animal is close by, but cannot be seen.  Once again we have confirmation of this particular stalking power.

The creature is also known to the residents as well. I presume they leave each other alone.

Certainly this is the creature's home turf.

Chased Through the Woods

Monday, February 11, 2019.

I recently found the following account:

Last Monday (Feb. 4th), I went on a walk into the woods. I usually go all the time, whether it’s spring or winter. A bit of information: I live near Lake Ontario (in New York), there’s lots of state land and forests go on for miles. I live in the middle of nowhere, so I can walk into the woods and keep walking for hours. Because I go on walks, jogs, and play soccer, I’d say I’m fairly athletic. I’m an 18 year old girl, I’m not very tall, and I don’t weigh much, so I’m a pretty fast runner too. That’s an important later.

Sometimes it can get really creepy out there in the woods. You feel watched, and really tense. My mom and grandparents (they live right down the road) always told me that if I start to feel unsafe out there, I ALWAYS need to leave. They never said why, I always figured they were afraid of the Coywolves, it never seemed that important. I did listen to them though, I always went back home.

So Monday afternoon, maybe a bit past four o’clock, I left to go walking. I had been out there just two days before with no problems. But after walking for about half a mile, the feeling that I was being watched began. I was unsettled, but I stupidly thought to myself, “You’re 18 years old, you have a seven-inch knife on your belt, and the house really isn’t THAT far away. What are you so afraid of?” It was stupid, I should’ve gone home.

[ Folks really need to understand that they can be stalked by a Giant Sloth - arclein ]

Anyways, I kept walking (maybe 1/4 mile) until I came to the old logging road. It makes for a quick way around the woods, it also connects to the road that my house and my grandparent’s house are on. I was getting pretty tired of hiking through the snow-covered bushes and logs, I kept falling through and it was making me feel a bit too vulnerable to be openly struggling when I still felt like something was watching me. And just a few moments before I could’ve sworn I saw something moving around in my peripheral vision, so I decided to walk down the logging road instead. As I was walking down it, I heard the sound of chains rattling nearby and started looking around for them, thinking maybe it was just chains in a tree blowing in the wind. It’s not uncommon for hunters and ATVers to leave chains, ropes, and random garbage along the path. Still, I couldn’t find any chains and I stopped hearing it after a second. I shrugged it off. But just a few minutes later I heard them again. It was weird, but I ignored it again. I kept walking and was getting close to my grandparent’s land when I heard the chains again, I stopped walking to look around me and check to see if maybe it was something I was wearing: my jacket, my necklace, it wasn’t anything on me. I jumped around to double check and probably looked really stupid, but I knew it wasn’t me making the noise.

I decided I’d just go to my grandparent’s house and walk back using the actual road, but as soon as I starting heading into the woods I heard something. It sounded like my footsteps had been in-time with a second pair that were maybe ten feet away, which made no sense because there had been nothing there just a moment ago. I took another step and heard something step at the same time from behind me. I didn’t turn around, I was too afraid to. (It’s probably a good thing I didn’t.) So I acted as if I was going to take a step forward, but stopped my foot right above the snow. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going crazy. Behind me, whatever there was there stepped down. I heard the snow crunch, then it moved forward again quickly, it must’ve known I’d figured out it was there, I started running towards my grandparent’s land and whatever was behind me followed. It sounded human-like, and the sound of the chains started up again when it started chasing me. The thing definitely had only two legs and it sounded pretty big.

There’s a lot of thorn bushes, small trees, and things that stay around all year, even in the winter. While I ran around/between them as best I could, it was just going right through them. I glanced behind me for a second and all I saw was a REALLY tall, grey, humanoid blur before I looked back in front of me. Timing wasn’t on my side, like I said, it was the late afternoon and the sun was getting low. So it was getting a little dark under the trees, I was running through the thorn bushes at this point because I knew it was getting too close to me and there were just too many thorns to try going around them all. I was slowed down by them by a bit and was sure it was going to catch me, but it never did. I’m not sure if maybe it just didn’t care to for some reason (maybe trying to scare me away?) or I was still going fast enough that it couldn’t catch me. I burst through the final line of bushes and out onto the cleared up edge of my grandparent’s yard, then up the hill and to the house. That final stretch was TERRIFYING, I could hear heavy breathing and chains rattling just a few feet behind me the entire time and it sounded like it was almost growling. My grandparent’s dog (a very big Malamute-Mastiff mix) was up in the yard near the house and started barking, but he didn’t run towards me, he just stayed by the house barking. Then he ran with me to the house when I got close to him. I ran up to the door and went inside (The dog came in right beside me.) and slammed the door shut.

I didn’t hear anything and looked out the window, but there wasn’t anything there. The dog was leaning on me and shaking, I was too, so I understood how he felt, we were both really scared by that thing. My grandfather came to the door from upstairs after just a few seconds and I started crying and told him everything after I’d calmed down and could breath again. He became very serious and told me, “Don’t think about it, just forget it ever happened.” I tried to ask him why, but he refused to tell me anything, he just insisted that I forget immediately and keep it out of mind, but I can’t forget. I tried asking my grandmother too, but she didn’t say anything and changed the subject. My dad thinks it was a bear, I KNOW it wasn’t. For one thing, you can’t outrun bears. My mom acted the same way as my grandparents (they’re her parents). They refuse to answer any of my questions, so I told a close friend about it the other day. She didn’t know what it was either. HN

The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life

Talent without toughness and targeted application is still nothing.  The reason i maintain a blog is to discipline my reading and to continuously practice my writing habit.  Since 2007, I have put out 12,700 individual posts covering ultimately as many third party published items, usually articles.  I have thus easily read over 50,000,000 words and have also easily written over 5,000,000 words.

In this manner I am fully engaged with a continuous learning project that naturally out runs just about anyone else.  This has thrown up a steady stream of new ideas, of my own and of others as well.

The real take home is that mental toughness is simply a planned protocol you build your life around.  Add in meditation practice and other planned improvement activities and away you go.

The Science of Developing Mental Toughness in Your Health, Work, and Life

Talent is overrated, mental strength is critical
Have you ever wondered what makes someone a good athlete? Or a good leader? Or a good parent? 
Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail?

What makes the difference?
Usually we answer these questions by talking about the talent of top performers. He must be the smartest scientist in the lab. She’s faster than everyone else on the team. He is a brilliant business strategist.3
But I think we all know there is more to the story than that.3
In fact, when you start looking into it, your talent and your intelligence don’t play nearly as big of a role as you might think. The research studies that I have found say that intelligence only accounts for 30% of your achievement — and that’s at the extreme upper end.
What makes a bigger impact than talent or intelligence? Mental toughness.
Research is starting to reveal that your mental toughness — or “grit” as they call it — plays a more important role than anything else when it comes to achieving your goals in health, business, and life. That’s good news because you can’t do much about the genes you were born with, but you can do a lot to develop mental toughness.3
Why is mental toughness so important? And how can you develop more of it?
Let’s talk about that now.
Mental Toughness and The United States Military

Each year, approximately 1,300 cadets join the entering class at the United States Military Academy, West Point. During their first summer on campus, cadets are required to complete a series of brutal tests. This summer initiation program is known internally as “Beast Barracks.”
In the words of researchers who have studied West Point cadets, “Beast Barracks is deliberately engineered to test the very limits of cadets’ physical, emotional, and mental capacities.”
You might imagine that the cadets who successfully complete Beast Barracks are bigger, stronger, or more intelligent than their peers. But Angela Duckworth, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, found something different when she began tracking the cadets.
Duckworth studies achievement, and more specifically, how your mental toughness, perseverance, and passion impact your ability to achieve goals. At West Point, she tracked a total of 2,441 cadets spread across two entering classes. She recorded their high school rank, SAT scores, Leadership Potential Score (which reflects participation in extracurricular activities), Physical Aptitude Exam (a standardized physical exercise evaluation), and Grit Scale (which measures perseverance and passion for long–term goals).
Here’s what she found out…
It wasn’t strength or smarts or leadership potential that accurately predicted whether or not a cadet would finish Beast Barracks. Instead, it was grit — the perseverance and passion to achieve long–term goals — that made the difference.
In fact, cadets who were one standard deviation higher on the Grit Scale were 60% more likely to finish Beast Barracks than their peers. It was mental toughness that predicted whether or not a cadet would be successful, not their talent, intelligence, or genetics.
When is Mental Toughness Useful?

Duckworth’s research has revealed the importance of mental toughness in a variety of fields.
In addition to the West Point study, she discovered that…
  • Ivy League undergraduate students who had more grit also had higher GPAs than their peers — even though they had lower SAT scores and weren’t as “smart.”
  • When comparing two people who are the same age but have different levels of education, grit (and not intelligence) more accurately predicts which one will be better educated.
  • Competitors in the National Spelling Bee outperform their peers not because of IQ, but because of their grit and commitment to more consistent practice.
And it’s not just education where mental toughness and grit are useful. Duckworth and her colleagues heard similar stories when they started interviewing top performers in all fields…
Our hypothesis that grit is essential to high achievement evolved during interviews with professionals in investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law. Asked what quality distinguishes star performers in their respective fields, these individuals cited grit or a close synonym as often as talent. In fact, many were awed by the achievements of peers who did not at first seem as gifted as others but whose sustained commitment to their ambitions was exceptional. Likewise, many noted with surprise that prodigiously gifted peers did not end up in the upper echelons of their field.
 — Angela Duckworth
You have probably seen evidence of this in your own experiences. Remember your friend who squandered their talent? How about that person on your team who squeezed the most out of their potential? Have you known someone who was set on accomplishing a goal, no matter how long it took?
You can read the whole research study here, but this is the bottom line:
In every area of life — from your education to your work to your health — it is your amount of grit, mental toughness, and perseverance predicts your level of success more than any other factor we can find.
In other words, talent is overrated.
What Makes Someone Mentally Tough?

It’s great to talk about mental toughness, grit, and perseverance … but what do those things actually look like in the real world?
In a word, toughness and grit equal consistency.
  • Mentally tough athletes are more consistent than others. They don’t miss workouts. They don’t miss assignments. They always have their teammates back.
  • Mentally tough leaders are more consistent than their peers. They have a clear goal that they work towards each day. They don’t let short–term profits, negative feedback, or hectic schedules prevent them from continuing the march towards their vision. They make a habit of building up the people around them — not just once, but over and over and over again.
  • Mentally tough artists, writers, and employees deliver on a more consistent basis than most. They work on a schedule, not just when they feel motivated. They approach their work like a pro, not an amateur. They do the most important thing first and don’t shirk responsibilities.
The good news is that grit and perseverance can become your defining traits, regardless of the talent you were born with. You can become more consistent. You can develop superhuman levels of mental toughness.
In my experience, these 3 strategies work well in the real world…
1. Define What Mental Toughness Means For You

For the West Point army cadets being mentally tough meant finishing an entire summer of Beast Barracks.
For you, it might be…
  • going one month without missing a workout
  • going one week without eating processed or packaged food
  • delivering your work ahead of schedule for two days in a row
  • meditating every morning this week
  • grinding out one extra rep on each set at the gym today
  • calling one friend to catch up every Saturday this month
  • spending one hour doing something creative every evening this week
Whatever it is, be clear about what you’re going after. Mental toughness is an abstract quality, but in the real world it’s tied to concrete actions. You can’t magically think your way to becoming mentally tough, you prove it to yourself by doing something in real life.
Which brings me to my second point…
2. Mental Toughness is Built Through Small Physical Wins
You can’t become committed or consistent with a weak mind. How many workouts have you missed because your mind, not your body, told you you were tired? How many reps have you missed out on because your mind said, “Nine reps is enough. Don’t worry about the tenth.” Probably thousands for most people, including myself. And 99% are due to weakness of the mind, not the body.

 — Drew Shamrock
So often we think that mental toughness is about how we respond to extreme situations. How did you perform in the championship game? Can you keep your life together while grieving the death of a family member? Did you bounce back after your business went bankrupt?
There’s no doubt that extreme situations test our courage, perseverance, and mental toughness … but what about everyday circumstances?
Mental toughness is like a muscle. It needs to be worked to grow and develop.If you haven’t pushed yourself in thousands of small ways, of course you’ll wilt when things get really difficult.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Choose to do the tenth rep when it would be easier to just do nine. Choose to create when it would be easier to consume. Choose to ask the extra question when it would be easier to accept. Prove to yourself — in a thousand tiny ways — that you have enough guts to get in the ring and do battle with life.
Mental toughness is built through small wins. It’s the individual choices that we make on a daily basis that build our “mental toughness muscle.” We all want mental strength, but you can’t think your way to it. It’s your physical actions that prove your mental fortitude.
3. Mental Toughness is About Your Habits, Not Your Motivation

Motivation is fickle. Willpower comes and goes.
Mental toughness isn’t about getting an incredible dose of inspiration or courage. It’s about building the daily habits that allow you to stick to a schedule and overcome challenges and distractions over and over and over again.
Mentally tough people don’t have to be more courageous, more talented, or more intelligent — just more consistent. Mentally tough people develop systems that help them focus on the important stuff regardless of how many obstacles life puts in front of them. It’s their habits that form the foundation of their mental beliefs and ultimately set them apart.
I’ve written about this many times before. Here are the basic steps for building a new habit and links to further information on doing each step.
  1. Start by building your identity.
  1. Focus on small behaviors, not life–changing transformations.
  1. Develop a routine that gets you going regardless of how motivated you feel.
  1. Stick to the schedule and forget about the results.
  1. When you slip up, get back on track as quickly as possible.
Mental toughness comes down to your habits. It’s about doing the things you know you’re supposed to do on a more consistent basis. It’s about your dedication to daily practice and your ability to stick to a schedule.
How Have You Developed Mental Toughness?

Our mission as a community is clear: we are looking to live healthy lives and make a difference in the world.
To that end, I see it as my responsibility to equip you with the best information, ideas, and strategies for living healthier, becoming happier, and making a bigger impact with your life and work.
But no matter what strategies we discuss, no matter what goals we set our sights on, no matter what vision we have for ourselves and the people around us… none of it can become a reality without mental toughness, perseverance, and grit.
When things get tough for most people, they find something easier to work on. When things get difficult for mentally tough people, they find a way to stay on schedule.
There will always be extreme moments that require incredible bouts of courage, resiliency, and grit… but for 95% of the circumstances in life, toughness simply comes down to being more consistent than most people.

Words as feelings

Impressive actually.  I have been blind to this nuance and it is really important but obviously hidden.  It also explains why we have tonal languages and such awareness will allow you to even learn such a language structure.

After all heavy or light are important inflections in our speaking and awareness becomes necessary. This also explains the addition of gestures as well and it all informs us that the study of language needs to open up to address all this in practise.

Just knowing the association also helps learn that particular word as well.  We have all dealt with gender which is difficult to rationalize, but this is the same and it is completely rational.

Words as feelings

A special class of vivid, textural words defy linguistic theory: could ‘ideophones’ unlock the secrets of humans’ first utterances?

If you don’t speak Japanese but would like, momentarily, to feel like a linguistic genius, take a look at the following words. Try to guess their meaning from the two available options:
1. nurunuru (a) dry or (b) slimy?
2. pikapika (a) bright or (b) dark?
3. wakuwaku (a) excited or (b) bored?
4. iraira (a) happy or (b) angry?
5. guzuguzu (a) moving quickly or (b) moving slowly?
6. kurukuru (a) spinning around or (b) moving up and down?
7. kosokoso (a) walking quietly or (b) walking loudly?
8. gochagocha (a) tidy or (b) messy?
9. garagara (a) crowded or (b) empty?
10. tsurutsuru (a) smooth or (b) rough?
The answers are: 1(b); 2(a); 3(a); 4(b); 5(b); 6(a); 7(a); 8(b); 9(b) 10(a).

If you think this exercise is futile, you’re in tune with traditional linguistic thinking. One of the founding axioms of linguistic theory, articulated by Ferdinand de Saussure in the early 19th century, is that any particular linguistic sign – a sound, a mark on the page, a gesture – is arbitrary, and dictated solely by social convention. Save those rare exceptions such as onomatopoeias, where a word mimics a noise – eg, ‘cuckoo’, ‘achoo’ or ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’ – there should be no inherent link between the way a word sounds and the concept it represents; unless we have been socialised to think so, nurunuru shouldn’t feel more ‘slimy’ any more than it feels ‘dry’.

Yet many world languages contain a separate set of words that defies this principle. Known as ideophones, they are considered to be especially vivid and evocative of sensual experiences. Crucially, you do not need to know the language to grasp a hint of their meaning. Studies show that participants lacking any prior knowledge of Japanese, for example, often guess the meanings of the above words better than chance alone would allow. For many people, nurunuru really does feel ‘slimy’; wakuwaku evokes excitement, and kurukuru conjures visions of circular rather than vertical motion. That should simply not be possible, if the sound-meaning relationship was indeed arbitrary. (The experiment is best performed using real audio clips of native speakers.)

How and why do ideophones do this? Despite their prevalence in many languages, ideophones were once considered linguistic oddities of marginal interest. As a consequence, linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists have only recently started to unlock their secrets.

Their results pose a profound challenge to the foundations of Saussurean linguistics. According to this research, language is embodied: a process that involves subtle feedback, for both listener and speaker, between the sound of a word, the vocal apparatus and our own experience of human physicality. Taken together, this dynamic helps to create a connection between certain sounds and their attendant meanings. These associations appear to be universal across all human societies.

This understanding of language as an embodied process can illuminate the marvel of language acquisition during infancy. It might even cast light on the evolutionary origins of language itself – potentially representing a kind of ‘proto-world’, a vestige of our ancestors’ first utterances.

How should we define an ideophone? All languages contain powerfully emotive or sensual words, after all. But ideophones share a couple of characteristics that make them unique. For one, they constitute their own unique class, marked with their own linguistic rules – in the same way that, say, nouns or verbs also follow their own rules in how they are formed and used. In Japanese, for instance, ideophones are easy to recognise because they most often take the form of a two-syllable root that is then repeated – such as gochagocha (messy), nurunuru (slimy) or tsurutsuru (smooth).

Native speakers also have to agree that words in this class, as a whole, depict sensual scenes with an intensity that cannot be expressed by vocabulary outside the class. ‘So you could just describe it in dry, arbitrary words, but what [ideophones] do is enable you to experience it yourself,’ Mark Dingemanse at Radboud University in the Netherlands told me.

Ideophones are more prevalent in some languages than others. English has relatively few; by comparison, more than 4,000 Japanese words are classed as ideophones, meaning that they’re a hugely important part of anyone’s vocabulary. They can also be found across Asia, Africa, South America and Australasia. (My personal favourite ideophone is ribuy-tibuy, which means ‘the sound, sight, or motion of a person’s buttocks rubbing together as they walk’ in Mundari, spoken in Eastern India and Bangladesh.)

Some of the earliest formal studies of ideophones come from anthropologists who travelled in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th century. Analysing Bobangi, a language spoken in Congo, the linguist John Whitehead in 1899 described ‘colouring’ words that were ‘among the most graphic in the language’, adding that ‘often they have such force that sentence after sentence can be constructed by means of them, without the use of a single verb.’

The Ewe word for ‘duck’ evokes an uneven walk, and is accompanied by an exaggerated waddling motion
Even more influential was the German missionary Diedrich Westermann, who described the Lautbilder or ‘picture words’ of Ewe, spoken in present-day Ghana and Togo. Like Whitehead, Westermann emphasised the fact that these words could depict vivid and complex scenes. For example, zɔ hlóyihloyi captured the manner of someone ‘walking with many dangling objects’; another, zɔ ʋɛ̃ʋɛ̃, the ‘gait of a fat and stiff person’.

Part of their power comes from how the words themselves are produced: ideophones are often spoken in a dramatic tone of voice and accompanied by visual gestures to help you visualise the scene. The Ewe word ɖaboɖabo, for instance, translates as ‘duck’; in addition, the repetition of its basic syllables evokes an uneven walk, and the sounds are accompanied by an exaggerated waddling motion. ‘It’s a really good example of an ideophone as a word that imitates not just sound but a whole sensory scene,’ Dingemanse, who speaks Ewe, told me.

That observation is significant in itself. In the West, we have tended to think of language as primarily one modality – words, as either speech or writing – but there is now a growing appreciation that bodily gestures and hand signs are also incredibly important for meaning-making.

Yet Westermann’s later research found that there was also something special in ideophones’ phonological features. Comparing the ideophones of half a dozen West African languages, he noted that certain ‘front’ or ‘closed’ vowels – such as the [i] sound in the English word ‘cheese’ – tended to be used to represent concepts that were light, fine or bright, for instance; while ‘back’ or ‘open’ vowels – such as the [ɔ] sound in ‘talk’ or the [ɑ] in past – tended to be associated with a sense of slowness, heaviness and darkness. Meanwhile, voiced consonants such as ‘b’ or ‘g’ – so-called because they require the vocal cords to resonate – were associated with greater weight and softness, while voiceless consonants, such as ‘p’ or ‘k’, tended to be used to represent lighter weights and harsher surfaces. So, for example, in Ewe, someone kputukpluu is thinner than someone who is gbudugbluu.

He found similar relationships with linguistic tones. In many languages, the pitch at which a syllable is spoken can change a word’s meaning. Westermann found that words representing slowness, darkness and heaviness tended to have lower tones than those depicting speed, agility and brightness, which were formed of higher tones. Many also include the repetition of syllables, which can be used to signify number and a continuous action or state. So, for instance, in Ewe, kpata is used to denote one drop falling, but kpata kpata depicts many drops falling.

Such ‘sound symbolism’ – as it is known in the literature – should not be seen as a one-to-one, rigid ‘coding’; a particular phoneme can be associated with a whole range of sensations to do with weight, shape, brightness or darkness and motion. But Westermann’s research offered some of the first concrete evidence that certain linguistic sounds might be somehow better-suited to evoking certain concepts for listeners than others.

These patterns have now been observed in the ideophones of many other languages. To take a couple of examples from Basque – a language isolate that also has more than 4,000 ideophones – tiki taka, with its closed, frontal [i] sound, means taking quick, light steps, while taka taka, with a more open [a] sound, denotes taking heavier steps; tilin tilin means ‘small toll’, and tulun tulun ‘big toll’.

Meanwhile, in Japanese you have gorogoro, which, with its voiced ‘g’ sounds, represents a heavy object rolling continuously, while korokoro, with a voiceless ‘k’, represents a lighter rolling object. Similarly, bota means a ‘thick/much liquid hitting a solid surface’, while pota means a ‘thin/little liquid hitting a solid surface’. If you are a Pokémon fan, you might even notice these sound-meaning relationships in your favourite characters. Pikachu, for instance, is named after the Japanese ideophone pikapika, which means sparkle. As Westermann had noted, the voiceless consonants and front [i] vowels are often associated with brightness in a number of languages.

Importantly, psychological studies suggest that these general sound-symbolic connections are universally understood throughout the world. Consider the following experiment. Given two words, kiki and bouba – which term is most appropriate to describe the following shapes?

An early version of this experiment can be found in the writing of the German psychologist Wolfgang Köhler in the late 1920s, who tested participants in Tenerife. But the result has now been repeated many times, in many different cultures. In almost all cases, bouba is chosen to represent the shape on the right by the vast majority of participants, while kiki naturally seems to fit a spiky, pointed object.

The evocative power of ideophones might therefore reflect on an inherent sound symbolism understood by all humans. Although we don’t know the exact origin of these universal connections between sounds and meanings, one attractively parsimonious answer comes from human biology and the bodily experience of speech. According to this theory, subtle feedback from our mouth and throat primes us to associate certain phonemes with certain concepts. The mouth tends to form a rounder shape when we form an [o] sound, compared with an [i] sound – which might help to explain the kiki/bouba phenomenon. Voiced consonants such as ‘b’ also last for a marginally longer time than voiceless consonants such as ‘t’ – which might explain why they are associated with slower speed.
Nasal sounds are found in words associated with the nose, such as ‘snout’, ‘sniff’ or ‘sneeze’
Although nuanced, these ‘vocal gestures’ – in which our articulatory system subtly mimics the concept we wish to convey – might just be enough to prime us to intuitively feel that a word is more or less suited to a particular concept.

Sound symbolism might also emerge from the sensations associated with how we make noises. The marked resonance in the front of our face might explain why nasal sounds are more often found in many words associated with the nose, such as ‘snout’, ‘sniff’ or ‘sneeze’ in English.

However, that doesn’t really explain how sounds could convey a concept such as the brightness of glitter. Another theory chalks this up to more general cross-talk between brain regions, where our neural wiring means that activation in one sensory region triggers a response in another. We know this happens in people with synaesthesia – such that a particular musical note can evoke a colour, say – which is thought to be caused by an overabundance of neural links, as if the brain were a too-dense forest whose tree roots have become entangled. Some scientists believe that a similar, though less pronounced, phenomenon could lie behind sound-symbolic connections. Interestingly, synaesthetes tend to be more sensitive to sound symbolism than average members of the population, offering some circumstantial evidence for the idea.

Whatever its origins, analyses of thousands of languages reveal that most cultures use sound symbolism to some degree. Unsurprisingly, languages with many ideophones make more systematic use of sound symbolism to evoke meaning. In one experiment, for instance, Dingemanse and his colleague Gwilym Lockwood gave a group of Dutch participants a list of Japanese ideophones, their translations and their antonyms. (Lockwood also provided the quiz at the start of this article.) He found that they could guess the right answer with around 72 per cent accuracy. He then tried the same experiment with regular Japanese adjectives. The participants still scored above chance – they were right about 63 per cent of the time – but finding the meanings of the adjectives from the sounds alone was harder, compared with the ideophones.

As part of the same study, Dingemanse also asked Dutch participants to memorise various lists of word pairs. In one, the ideophones were paired with the correct translation that matched their sound symbolism (kibikibi was paired with its true meaning, ‘energetic’, for instance). In another, the Japanese ideophones were paired with words of the opposite meaning (kibikibi was paired with the Dutch word for ‘tired’).

Over all the experiments, the participants found it far easier to learn the ideophones paired with their correct meaning, remembering about 86 per cent of the ‘congruent’ word pairs, compared with 71 per cent of the word pairs in which they had been given the wrong translation of the ideophone. Once again, this was not true in another experiment that measured how well they learnt Japanese adjectives – supporting the idea that there is something special about ideophones, and the way they are formed, that makes them particularly vivid.

Perhaps because of historic ‘Eurocentrism’ in linguistics, and its concentration on more formal, written sources, such research has not always received the attention it deserved. (One linguist in the 1990s even went as far as to describe ideophones as the ‘lunatic fringe’ of language.) Dingemanse points out that even Westermann’s detailed writings had been largely ignored – a ‘forgotten treasure’ – until he recently unearthed them. But in the past decade, more and more linguists and cognitive scientists are coming to recognise them. ‘The topic has seen rapid adoption, and many people are now working on it, and those that aren’t at least feel they should acknowledge it,’ Dingemanse told me in an email.

This burgeoning understanding is of great philosophical importance, suggesting that we should embrace some long-abandoned theories of language. Millennia before Saussure had proposed the ‘arbitrariness of the linguistic sign’, philosophers had debated whether some words are inherently better at expressing an idea. Plato, for instance, records the philosopher Cratylus arguing that there should be a natural connection between a word’s form and its meaning. Linguists refer to this phenomenon as iconicity, the opposite of arbitrariness.

The sheer number of documented ideophones suggests that these ideas are worth revisiting. ‘Languages are on a spectrum; each language is on a balancing point between the forces of arbitrariness and iconicity,’ says Marcus Perlman, a linguist and cognitive scientist at the University of Birmingham in the UK. Dingemanse agrees, noting that while ‘there are still lots of degrees of freedom in language’, the general principle of absolute arbitrariness needs to be modified to acknowledge that both arbitrary and iconic features play a role in transmitting meaning.

Japanese parents use ideophones far more frequently during the first few years of a child’s life
Recognising the importance of iconicity could solve some lingering scientific mysteries, including the process of language acquisition during childhood. To understand why this is a conundrum, put yourself in the mind of a baby or toddler, hearing the swell of conversation around her. Imagine, for instance, that she is watching a rabbit hop across the lawn – while her mother or father says: ‘Look at the rabbit! Look at it hop!’ How is the baby meant to know which word refers to its own actions, which word refers to the rabbit itself, and which refers to its movement? More importantly, how does she know to generalise what she has learnt – so that the same word applies to all rabbits of different colours and sizes? Or that the word ‘hop’ can apply to any creature – even a human – moving in a stop-start, jumpy fashion?

Gestures such as pointing, and the parent’s gaze, could obviously assist in distinguishing some elements of the scene. But Mutsumi Imai at Keio University in Japan and Sotaro Kita at the University of Warwick in the UK argue that sound symbolism can also give subtle cues that help a child to identify what a word is referring to – an idea they call the ‘sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis’.

As evidence, Imai and Kita have shown that one- and two-year-olds, when given a sound-symbolic word, were more likely to direct their attention at the appropriate object or movement. The children also found it easier to remember and generalise the sound-symbolic words afterwards – such that, if they learn a new verb, they know it can be applied to other scenarios, suggesting the sound symbolism helps them grasp that the word refers to motion.

It’s telling that Japanese mothers and fathers consistently use ideophones far more frequently during the first few years of a child’s life. This raises another big question: how do children learn languages such as English, without such a widespread, systematic use of sound symbolism? There is now some evidence that parents in these cultures invent their own, or select existing words with slightly more sound-symbolic forms (such as ‘teeny-weeny’ to mean small). To achieve the same ends, they might also use prosodic cues, such as intonation, stress and rhythm, as well as more dramatic pronunciation – another feature of ideophones.

Even more profoundly, ideophones might offer us a glimpse of the early origins of language at least 40,000 years ago. The emergence of speech is a longstanding mystery for evolutionary theorists. In general, the evolution of a complex trait such as language should happen gradually. But if the arbitrariness principle holds, and speech is meaningful only by convention, our amazingly open-ended communicative abilities would have required a huge evolutionary leap. Without a recognised form of language already in place, how could humans’ first vocalisations convey anything useful to their peers?

For this reason, many theorists have preferred a ‘gesture first’ theory – the idea that language arose first with pantomimed hand gestures that slowly evolved into more conventional signs. But this hypothesis only shifts the problem, because it doesn’t fully explain how or why most humans now communicate primarily through speech rather than with signed languages.

According to some scholars, including Imai and Kita, the research on sound symbolism – and ideophones in particular – can help us to solve that puzzle: the iconic associations between sound and meaning could have offered a starting point for the group to develop a shared lexicon.

The first words must have conveyed whole scenes rather than discrete objects
Some preliminary evidence in favour of this hypothesis comes from Perlman. In one of his studies, a group of participants played charades, but instead of using gestures, they were allowed to use only completely novel vocalisations for concepts such as ‘man’, ‘rock’, ‘knife’, ‘hunt’, ‘cook’ and ‘sharp’ – while others guessed what they meant. Contrary to expectations, their accuracy – around 50 per cent – was far higher than chance would have allowed (in this experiment, around 10 per cent). ‘For the majority of these concepts, people had really consistent intuitions about what sounds map onto what kinds of meanings,’ Perlman told me.

Admittedly, many of the utterances took the form of sound onomatopoeia – a knife’s vocalisation involved a ‘whooshing’ sound of a blade, for instance. But combined with the research on sound symbolism and ideophones, it supports the notion that iconic vocalisations, where the word’s form somehow ‘resembles’ its meaning, might have been a starting point for communication between speakers with no previous language.

Kita hypothesises that, like ideophones, the first words must have conveyed whole scenes rather than discrete objects, evolving only later to be more like conventional words. And like ideophones, these utterances might have been dramatic in nature – using a tone of voice, facial expression and gesture – with the sound symbolism to help other group members connect the utterances to their meaning, such as an object’s appearance or movement. The sound-symbolic patterns that we still find today are like linguistic ‘fossils’, Kita says, that can help us to guess what those early words might have sounded like.

There is a danger, however, that these evolutionary theories entrench the idea that today’s ideophones are somehow primitive – a prejudice that has lingered since those first detailed studies of African ideophones. But Dingemanse says that this view could not be further from the truth. Ideophones move us a little closer to understanding how, through sounds alone, two individuals can share sensual experiences across time and space. They should remind us that language is deeply rooted in the body; that each word is, in some small way, a performance-piece that deploys many of our senses. ‘Poetry helps you see things in a new light, helps you savour words, is evocative of sensory scenes,’ Dingemanse told me. ‘That is exactly what ideophones do in many of the world’s languages.’

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

An Absurdly Complete Guide to Understanding Whiskey

More than most want to know, but then i have also passed in the night.  Turns out that  a carefully drawn suspension of carbon particles in water produces heads and tails as well and allows the collection of a middle that is surprisingly useful to nicely age whisky.   We discovered all this and the information leaked out and i am sure it is been used. 

Aging itself consists of using charred barrels which allows the whisky to come in contact with carbon.  Without disturbance it must take a long time.

Thus adding nano sized carbon particles short circuits the process.  This was my real introduction to the potential of nano particles in chemical processing..

An Absurdly Complete Guide to Understanding Whiskey

By Jake Emen  
August 13, 2015

What really makes whiskey taste like whiskey? If flavor truly just came down to a simple formula of distilling ratios of grains plus time spent in a barrel, then there wouldn’t be an infinite range of tastes, profiles and qualities. There’s a world of whiskey geekdom to explore, all of the finer points which turn that basic math into the highly complex art and science of whiskey production.

Aging & Warehousing

Age is just a number, and the amount of time spent in a barrel is far from the only factor the affects a whiskey's final flavor.

Temperature & Weather

The external climate where a whiskey is warehoused greatly impacts how rapidly it ages, how much interaction it has with the wood from the barrel, and how much evaporation takes place. The hotter the temperature, the more alcohol penetrates the wood of the barrels, and the thirstier the angel's share. Add humidity to the heat, and evaporation quickly escalates.

The seasonal temperature fluctuation in, say, Kentucky allows barrels to "breathe" in and out—contracting in the cool of the winter, and expanding in the heat of the summer—whereas the steadier weather in Scotland offers far more year-round climate consistency. "We have a very mild, temperate climate in Speyside," explains The Macallan brand ambassador Craig Bridger. "You don't have the extreme swings of temperature you get in Kentucky. There's not a lot of variance for us."

Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Japan's Nikka Whisky, chose the location of his Yoichi distillery in the Hokkaido Prefecture because of the region's similar weather conditions to Scotland. The Father of Japanese Whisky had spent time living and learning in Scotland, and had a clear vision for how he would craft his own whisky, on his own island, halfway around the world.

Sometimes climates of choice or oceanside environs aren't available, as is in the case for Jefferson's Ocean Aged At Sea. So, the brand sends its whiskey traversing the globe aboard ships, and it's exposed to salty ocean air as it sways and sloshes. Meanwhile, Taiwan's Kavalan has garnered worldwide acclaim while aging its whiskies for a fraction of the period that its Scottish competitors do, thanks to their hot, humid climate.
Type of Warehouse

A visitor to Wild Turkey in Kentucky may get a chance to hear master distiller Eddie Russell wax poetic on the company's warehouses. They control every detail, from the materials used for construction, to the exterior paint color of the building, the location of the building (atop a hill or in a valley beneath one), how much direct sunlight it receives, temperature control (only opening windows in summer and closing them in winter), and their preference for metal-sided warehouses.

Visit Woodford Reserve and hear master distiller Chris Morris wax poetic to a different tune. "There are two styles of maturation, unheated or heated, as different as night or day," he explains. Woodford prefers to heat cycle their warehouses, controlling the internal temperature rather than letting the external environment take charge. Their warehouses are constructed of brick, stone or, for newer buildings, insulated concrete. This approach allows for more micromanaging of the aging process, as opposed to willfully succumbing to the whims of the weather.

The way barrels are stored also plays a role. Frederick Stitzel invented what would become the modern style of barrel warehousing, patenting an "improvement in racks for tiering barrels" in 1879. Storing barrels in this manner, with a thin plank of wood supporting each end of a horizontally aligned barrel, rather than a solid wooden platform or floor, allows the entire exterior surface to be exposed to the elements, turning a regular warehouse into today's rickhouse.
Internal Location

It's not just the geographic location of a warehouse, or the type of warehouse that matters, but the internal location within that warehouse where the barrel is stored. The top of a warehouse receives higher temperatures, resulting in a whiskey which ages far more rapidly.

Different floors within a warehouse, different sides of the building and specific row locations all impart unique characteristics based on temperature, airflow, humidity and other factors. "Every building has its own personality, every floor has its own personality," says Morris.

Moving barrels from one location to another, or incorporating barrels from different areas of a warehouse into a blend, greatly impacts its flavor. At Maker's Mark, for instance, the brand follows a schedule where all barrels are aged on the top floor of a warehouse for three summers, before rotating to the bottom floors for approximately three to four more years. When Jim Beam Black went NAS, Fred Noe began incorporating younger whiskey from the top floors of their warehouses to compensate.

Think that's specific? Read up on Buffalo Trace's experimental Warehouse X, where their mad whiskey scientists are testing endless warehouse variables.

Clearly, the way barrels are stored impacts the whiskey being made. The type of barrels utilized also plays a huge role.

Barrels aging in Scotland. Shutterstock: Pawel Kowalcyk


Size is the most obvious variable to barrels, and there's a wide range. Simply put, the size of a barrel determines the level of exposure a spirit has to the wood. Smaller barrels impart faster aging, although many question the quality of the aging produced in less time by small barrels, due in part to a lack of seasonal breathing (mentioned above) and other longterm climate and environmental conditions.

The standard across major American whiskey producers is the 53-gallon barrel. Many of the newer, smaller producers across the country though utilize 30-gallon barrels or even smaller sizes to help them age their wares in less time. Consider that along the back shelf of your favorite cocktail bar, there may be a barrel aged cocktail sitting pretty in a mini 1-gallon barrel.

Across the whiskey industry there are sherry butts, which hold approximately 132 gallons, Hogsheads, rebuilt barrels used in the Scotch industry which are approximately 60 to 65 gallons in size, and many other specific shapes and sizes.

Jerry Maguire once said that his "word is stronger than oak." But was he talking about American oak, French Limousin oak, Spanish oak, or Japanese Mizunara oak?

Wood from different regions will directly impart different flavors to a spirit. Suntory Whisky chief blender Shinji Fukuyo credits Mizunara casks for producing the "distinctive Japanese" long, spicy finish, for instance. There are more specific, regional differences as well, with American oak from Minnesota showcasing distinct characteristics comparative to American oak sourced from the middle of the country, or from the east coast.

Different woods have different compositions, with more porous woods allowing spirits to penetrate deeper into the barrel. For whiskey students looking for their whiskey geek PhDs, consider whether wood sourced from dense forests which had survived for hundreds of years would impart the same qualities as wood sourced from only decades-old forests planted and cultivated by humans, even when the exact same species of tree is being used, grown in exact same place.

Was the atmosphere and environment which the tree was a part of fundamentally different versus now? What about the overall temperature and climate, the particles in the air from nearby industry or a lack thereof? Do 200 years of seasons and weather innately impact a wood compared to just 20 years?

Most believe the answers to these questions to be yes.


Barrel char is created just as one would expect, with bursts of open flame torching the exposed surface of the wood on the inside of a barrel.

By definition, bourbon must be aged in new charred American oak barrels. Even most whiskey novices grasp that whether or not a barrel is charred impacts a spirit's flavor. In this case, the charring process is what enables the vanillin compounds within the wood to provide bourbon's signature vanilla and caramel sweetness. There's a range of chars available though, numbered to denote distinct stages. Wild Turkey, for instance, is one of many producers who uses the deepest char, #4, which yields a characteristic "alligator char," the inside of the barrel reminiscent of an alligator's scaly skin. Barrels may also be toasted to different levels, generally using dry heat as opposed to open flame, separate from or in addition to the charring, imparting still different qualities. The Brown-Forman Cooperage utilizes a proprietary toasting system based upon radiant heat.
New vs. Used

As mentioned above, by law bourbon is aged in new charred American oak barrels. But why "new"?

A new barrel, or virgin barrel, is one which has never been used to age a spirit. This type of barrel would impart stronger charred elements and flavors than a barrel which is being reused and has already soaked up whiskey for years.

The Scotch industry primarily uses ex-bourbon barrels, as well as ex-sherry barrels, some of which were specifically "seasoned" with sherry for the sole purpose of eventually aging whisky. First-fill barrels, which have only been previously used once, second-fill barrels, previously used twice, and those used repeatedly beyond that, all offer varied levels of their original flavors.

Staves are the individual pieces of wood used in the construction, or "raising" of a new barrel, and they too play a role. For example, the Brown-Forman Cooperage raises a barrel with between 31 to 33 staves of different widths.

Beyond sizing, there are other characteristics to consider as well. For instance, was the grain cut to produce the proper grain profile? Were the staves heated, or naturally aged or "seasoned" in the elements, and if so, for how long?

At Maker's Mark, they season their staves for nine months, including a full summer, helping to produce peak levels of vanillin compounds. To produce Maker's Mark 46, they insert 18-month-old seared French oak staves into a barrel for an extra eight to 11 weeks of aging, only performed in colder months of the year.

Woodford Reserve ages their wood outdoors for nine months before toasting it, and finally charring it. "We can pre-set certain flavors deep into the wood that charring alone can't do," explains Morris. Meanwhile, at The Macallan, Bridger notes that they dry age their staves for up to two years.

Production Control

While much of the industry has faced barrel scarcity issues due to an array of factors including extra demand, a re-burgeoning housing market, not enough loggers hacking away and detrimental weather, certain companies produce their own barrels, or tightly control the process. This helps them achieve their own exacting standards, while ensuring the supply is never caught off.

Brown-Forman has their own cooperages, producing nearly 3,500 barrels a day for their brands, including Jack Daniel's and Woodford Reserve, while The Macallan has their own "master of wood," Stuart MacPherson, who oversees their entire regimented process of production. "We own those casks from the beginning," says Bridger, allowing them fine-tuned control over the wood and the barrels.

The Formula

Grain + yeast + water = whiskey. That simple equation though includes infinite room for variation, experimentation and refinement.

Mash Bill Specifics

The mash bill of a whiskey is the ratio of grains it includes. Bourbon must incorporate a minimum of 51 percent corn, rye must utilize at least 51 percent rye grain, and different types of whiskey have other requirements. The mash bill for a single malt Scotch is by definition 100 percent malted barley.

From there though, brands are free to go in their own directions. Bourbons traditionally incorporate three grains: corn, rye and malted barley. A simplified explanation offers corn as the base, rye as providing extra flavor, and malted barley providing the enzymes to feed the fermentation process.

The ratio of these grains though varies heavily, and wheat may also be used in place of rye. A "high rye" bourbon will impart more spice from the rye grain into the whiskey, while "wheated" bourbons offer softer palates, and are in high demand in the wake of the Pappy craze.

But even then, not all rye or barley is equal. For instance, many companies utilize very specific, and in some cases, exclusive or proprietary grains. For instance, at Maker's Mark, they don't just incorporate wheat, but rather soft red winter wheat. Even the milling techniques utilized impact the end result, offering a different consistency or mix of grain sizes.

Distilleries today are experimenting with everything from oats to triticale, quinoa to millet, and a range of other grains to produce new whiskey riffs.


Enter the hallowed ground of any distillery and the yeast strain used for fermentation will undoubtedly be cited as one of that brand's special characteristics. "Our yeast is very important to our flavor profile," says Morris, touting yeast strain "Woodford Reserve 78B" as he cites what is an oft-repeated theme from one company to the next.

At Wild Turkey, the same yeast has been utilized for more than 50 years, and was formerly kept at master distiller Jimmy Russell's house. Every week, the company makes the yeast from scratch starting in a Petri dish. At Jim Beam, their yeast dates back to 1935. Jim Beam himself used to drive back home after a day at the distillery with his carefully protected yeast sitting in the front seat of his Cadillac with him. At Maker's Mark, the same Samuels family yeast strain has been maintained over the decades, and is grown every day.

Fermentation length also will impart different qualities, with longer fermentations producing more esters, and therefore fruitier characteristics. At Woodford Reserve, the brand follows a six-day fermentation process, which is perhaps the longest of any distillery the world over, and far longer than the average two to three day fermentation.

Water Supply

Ask a Manhattanite, or anyone from the tri-state area, and bagels just aren't quite right beyond New York. The same principle follows whiskey around the world, too.

If a visit to Kentucky offers a chance to talk aplenty about yeast, that discussion still pales compared to talk of the famous limestone water supply. The mineral content of the water offers a distinctive taste, and is one of the key reasons why bourbon became permanently rooted in the Bluegrass State.

It's not just bourbon and Kentucky though. In Japan, Suntory's distilleries were located precisely for their pure water supplies, both designated by the Japanese government as amongst the "most precious" water sources in the country, created by "the filtration of rain and snow through thousand-year-old granite rocks."

Peat & Smoke

Many aspects of the whiskey the world knows today were not created by scientists in white lab coats refining exacting formulas— although that's happening now—but instead by happenstance. Rye whiskey was dominant in America as rye grain was available in the eastern United States. As the country moved west and corn was grown, corn was used instead, and it became the backbone of bourbon.

In Scotland, prevalent peat bogs provided a heat and energy source. Peat fires were used to heat the stills, and more importantly, peat fires were used to dry the malted barley. Hence, the peat profile of Scotch, particularly Islay Scotch, was born.

Today, different grain smoking techniques are becoming more prevalent, from the highly touted Corsair Triple Smoke, which incorporates not only peat, but beechwood and cherrywood smoke, to Virginia's Copper Fox Distillery, which utilizes applewood and cherrywood in their production process.


Distilleries have to control what part of the distillate actually makes it into the barrel. The liquid flowing from the still can be broken down into what's known as heads, which are poisonous, hearts, which is the cleanest, tastiest portion, and tails, which begin to impart reduced quality of flavor.

How tight or loose a distiller is with his cuts directly changes the raw spirit that fills the barrel. For instance, The Macallan is famously tight with their cuts, incorporating only 16 percent of the distillate.

The proof that a distiller chooses to distill to also imparts different qualities. "We feel like we're cooking it medium rare," says Russell, meaning they leave more flavor in the distillate as opposed to a "well done" distillate at a higher proof.


"The magic a particular distillery has, you'll never be able to recreate it," says Bill Thomas, proprietor of noted whiskey bar Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., and foremost, a hardcore whiskey geek. "All of these factors came together and were magic for a period of time."

He's talking about everything already covered so far, barrels and warehouses, fermentation and yeast and mash bills and the rest, along with what remains, the stills themselves. "You could take the same mash bill, the same grains in perfect percentages, and the same yeast strain," he wagers, "but with a different still, the whiskey may be similar, but it might not even be close."

Distillation Type

Distillation may be performed by a pot still, or a column still. The former is traditional, completed on a batch by batch process, the latter, also known as a continuous still, more efficient and able to be operated without the need for batches. Beyond the choice of pot stills or column stills, a distillery may choose to double distill their whiskey, as is classic but not required for Scotch, or triple distill, as is the norm for Irish whiskey. Woodford Reserve's Morris uses an Irish style triple distillation pot still process, whereas massive columns rule the day at the Jim Beam American Stillhouse, with 200 gallons per minute sent to a six-story high still.

Shapes & Sizes

Even stills of the same class will churn out juice far different depending on other characteristics, such as the size of the still, its specific shape, the size of its different components such as the neck or line arm, how many plates are utilized, how they're heated, what they're made from, and more.

The Macallan's "curiously small stills" are the smallest in Speyside, but are still substantially larger than much of those used by today's new generation of American distillers. As The Macallan expands production, it's not with bigger or different stills, but with an ever-increasing number of exact replicas of the stills already in usage.

"They'll be carbon copies," confirms Bridger, "that's one thing we would be absolutely loathe to change in any way." Similarly, the ongoing expansion at Maker's Mark is introducing exact replicas of their own stills, preserving what they call their specific "microenvironment."

Suntory Whisky takes a far different approach, their three distilleries operating all types of pot stills of various shapes and sizes, enabling them to produce over 100 malt whiskies. As opposed to blended Scotch whisky, which sources single malts and single grains from many different distilleries, Suntory distills all of the individual whiskies used in one of their blends themselves.