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7 Things You Should Know About Bourbon

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September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, a celebration of America’s “native spirit.” I celebrate bourbon pretty much year-round, but it’s nice to have everyone else join in for a little while. If you’re not too familiar with the all-American whiskey, here’s a few things to catch you up to speed. 

1. First things first: Where’d the name come from? The usual explanation is that the hooch is named for the original Bourbon County, Kentucky, which covered a far larger area than the modern county (which has no distilleries today) and came to be called “Old Bourbon.” As the corn whiskey made by area distillers was shipped around the country, the barrels were stamped with the county’s name, and people started calling the Kentucky whiskeys bourbon to differentiate them from other regional styles. Bourbon County, in turn, was named for the royal House of Bourbon, which produced monarchs that ruled over France, Spain, Sicily, Naples, Spain and elsewhere.

There’s also an alternate explanation of the name that credits it to the whiskey’s popularity in New Orleans and curious drinkers seeking out the whiskey sold on Bourbon Street, or “that Bourbon whiskey.”

2. While bourbon was born in Kentucky and much of it is still made there today, bourbon doesn’t have to come from Bourbon County or the Bluegrass State. What makes bourbon bourbon, according to the Federal Standards of Identity of Distilled Spirits, is this: 

- It’s made in the U.S.
- It’s distilled from a grain mix that is at least 51 percent corn.
- It’s aged in new, oak barrels that have been charred.
- It’s distilled to no more than 160 proof (more on that in a minute), put into the barrel for aging at 125 proof or below and bottled at 80 proof or higher.

Bourbon that meets those standards, and has been aged for at least two years can be labeled straight bourbon.

3. The “proof” of a bourbon or other spirit is a measure of its alcoholic strength, defined in the U.S. as twice the percentage of alcohol by volume. So, for example, the bourbon that goes into the barrels at 125 proof is 62.5 percent alcohol. The term comes from 18th century Britain, where sailors “proved” their rum rations were not watered down by splashing gunpowder with the spirit and then igniting it. If the powder burned, the rum was legit. 

4. Last year, Kentucky’s distilleries filled 1,007,703 barrels with delicious bourbon. They hadn’t hit the million-barrel milestone since 1973, and the busy year brought their total inventory to 4.9 millions barrels. Kentucky now has more barrels of aging whiskey than it does people (the population is 4.3 million). The 2012 tax-assessed value of all that bourbon was $1.7 billion.

5. Bourbon’s origins aren’t well documented, but popular legend credits the first batch to Baptist preacher Elijah Craig. Ever thrifty, Craig supposedly re-used an old barrel to age some home-made corn hooch and sanitized it by charring—giving it a unique color and flavor. More likely, bourbon has no one creator. Corn whiskey was distilled in Kentucky before Craig arrived from Virginia, and aging in charred barrels is also documented decades earlier as a means of dealing with “sap blisters” in the wood that could alter the whiskey’s flavor. 

6. You’ll sometimes see bottles labeled sour mash bourbon. This doesn’t describe the flavor, but means that the whiskey was made using the “sour mash process,” where the mash—the mixture of grain, malt, and water that the spirit is distilled from—contains some material from a previously fermented and used mash. This helps maintain the chemical balance of the new mash, discourages growth of foreign bacteria, and maintains consistency and quality from batch to batch. 

7. Another term you might see on a bottle is Bottled-in-Bond or Bonded. This means the bourbon was made at a single distillery, by one distiller in one distillation season, aged for at least four years in a federally bonded and supervised warehouse, and bottled at 100 proof. 

Bonded bourbons came about in the late 1800s, when some distilleries were to turning a quick buck on harsher, unaged bourbons and adding anything from fruit syrups to tobacco to improve the color and flavor. As American Whiskey Reviews explains, the distilleries that churned out these “rectified whiskies” had a leg up on more proper bourbon makers in terms of production time and costs, allowing them to control much of the whiskey market. To protect themselves, distillers lobbied Congress to lay down the above standards in the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897, giving their products a mark of government-guaranteed quality assurance and a fighting chance in the market. 

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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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May 23, 2017
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