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Scotch for Beginners

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I've been a member of the Los Angeles Scotch Club since it was founded back in 2006, and in the past six months or so, we've noticed a marked uptick in interest and attendance. People everywhere seem to be increasingly interested in fine whiskeys and fine beers (despite the recession -- in fact, it's been said that rare whisky is a far sounder investment than the stock market), whereas the market share for fine wines is on a slight downswing. If you're just starting out and need a little guidance, our club's president, Andrew Smith, penned a nice beginner's guide, which with his permission I'm reprinting here.

So you're curious about Scotch, eh? The LA Scotch Club has written this little article to help explain what you really need to know about BEGINNING to enjoy good Scotch whisky. There are numerous books and magazine articles ready to preach about the whisky regions, the shape of potstills, and how some expert noticed a hint of elderberry in his $5000 Scotch (that he got for free). Now, I won't say that it's completely unimportant"¦ it's just not important to you right now, is it? What you need to know is: what to drink, how to enjoy it, and where to get your hands on it.

Let's start with "What do I want to drink?" We'll first separate the two important types of Scotch whisky: single malt and blended.

"¢ Blended Scotch

Blends are the bulk of Scotch sold worldwide and are allowed to take malt from many different distilleries, then "˜blend' them with inferior grain whisky. Blended Scotches (Johnny Walker, Chivas, and Dewars, etc.) strive for consistency and inoffensiveness, and sometimes achieve both. They have millions of casks to work with, with no two casks being exactly alike, leaving a hefty task of keeping the brands consistent year after year. Now, if your vision of a perfect evening is pouring Scotch into a big glass of ice and hoping for a familiar experience day in and day out, then blends are for you and you don't have to read another word. Cheers!

"¢ Single Malt Scotch

Excellent! You're still with us. I'll say this plainly: blends are inferior, mostly because they are bland and boring. They strive for it! A Johnny Walker Blue is popular because it's so smooth that you hardly notice that it's Scotch. Tap water is also smooth, and you'll hardly notice the Scotch. And it's cheaper! In single malts, however, you will find complexities of flavors you couldn't have imagined. Sometimes they won't suit your taste, I confess. But when you find the right malt"¦ well, you'll see.

Single Malt Scotch is by definition a malted-barley whisky produced in one (single) distillery. Scotch, which can only be made in Scotland, must be aged at least 3 years and be no less than 40% ABV (that goes for blends too.)

WHAT SHOULD I DRINK?

First, let me explain how I will categorize, in AN IMPORTANT WAY, Scotch for you. Major taste types (3 of them), and distribution type (2 of them). Let's start with the taste types:

1) Oak bourbon cask (most whisky)

2) Specialty casks (typically sherry casks)

3) Peaty (mostly from Islay)

Scotch is almost always aged in a used cask (pardon me, "˜pre-owned'), because the previous spirit strips away the harsh new-wood flavor and leaves a bit of itself that the Scotch will pick up.

Yes, there are complicated taste maps out there, but knowing these three types will get you pretty far. Whisky lovers will usually tell you whether they prefer or don't prefer sherried Scotch or Islays (they call themselves "˜Peat Freaks').

1) Oak bourbon cask

For lack of a better description, this is "normal" whisky. Used oak bourbon casks from America (bourbon is only allowed to use new casks) are cheap and plentiful, and the whisky may or may not inherit a small hint of bourbon. If your bottle doesn't specify what the whisky was aged in, this is usually it.

2) Specialty cask

Often, whisky is aged in casks that previously contained sherry, port, wine, rum, etc. Sherry has been historically popular, with distilleries such as Macallan and Glenfarclas specializing in it, but the rising cost of spent Sherry casks has made sherried whisky more costly and less common. Occasionally, whisky that has been aged in bourbon casks will be "finished" for a short time in a specialty cask.

3) Peaty

Peat is grassy soil burned as fuel to dry the barley and is plentiful on the boggy islands west of Scotland. The flavor from this peat smoke follows the whisky all the way to your bottle and is often described as briny, medicinal, smoky, or grassy. First timers will often react with "What the @#%," but the peat tends to grow on you fast and is a favorite of experienced tipplers. Peat can be used on any whisky, but it's a signature of the Islay Scotches and that's where you should start. Hint: Laphroaig 10 is cheap, easy to find, and tasty.

Now on to the distribution types: Distillery and Independent

1) Distillery

Most single malts are bottled by the distillery that made them, often with merely an age description. The distillery bottlings may mix in any whisky they produce so long as it's at least the age on the label. Most bottling lines will try to stay consistent from year to year, but distilleries often change or replace the line every decade or so.

2) Independent

The mass production of blends and even single-malts occasionally produces casks that for many various reasons (like being too damned tasty) are not thrown into the mix. These individual casks are sold to independent bottlers who sell the whisky under their own name AND the distillery name. These are very limited because only one cask is typically involved (200- 600 bottles), and are often better or quirkier than distillery's old standbys. With independents you'll even get to experience distilleries that don't have their own single malts (i.e. they are only used in blends), and often at cask strength (no water added).

HOW SHOULD I DRINK IT?

Hand it over and we'll show you. As for glassware, there are many nosing glasses such as Glencairn, CelticMalts, Riedel for your dram (a dram is a Scottish "shot".) Please avoid a big whisky tumbler. A large cognac snifter will work nicely too.

"¢ Nosing

It's a fancy word for sniffing. Start with your nose above the rim to avoid burning yourself. Great whisky will probably have a great nose.

"¢ Tasting

It's not wine, so don't swish it around aggressively. Let it coat every part of your tongue.

"¢ Add Water

A few drops of water should be added to a Scotch dram to help open it up. This creates a chemical reaction that rouses the aromas. For cask strength whiskies that are often above 50% or 60% ABV, you may want to add more to avoid burning your palate.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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