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15 Scotch Secrets from Glenfiddich’s Malt Master

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Whisky and water are the main attractions to Scotland’s Speyside region. The area houses more than half of the country’s malt whisky distilleries—some of which open their doors to the public. Among the more welcoming of distilleries is the family-owned Glenfiddich, which has been producing one of the world’s best-selling single-malt whiskies for well over a century. And it’s here that we met with Brian Kinsman, Glenfiddich’s Malt Master since 2009, who revealed the secrets to his profession and what it takes to produce what is popularly known as the "best dram in the valley.”

1. THE MALT MASTER GIG IS HARD TO COME BY.

In the company’s more than 125-year history, Kinsman is only the sixth individual to hold the Malt Master title. He joined the company as a chemist in the grain distillery in 1997, and four years later became the apprentice to David Stewart, Scotland’s longest-serving Malt Master (Stewart held the position for 35 years), whom he worked under for eight years.

2. A GREAT NOSE IS A JOB REQUIREMENT.

While there are no formal qualifications to become a Malt Master, “the most important skill is nosing,” Kinsman says. “Everything I do is based on sensory assessment and in a typical week I will nose hundreds of samples from new make spirit through to finished bottles ready to go to market.” Kinsman credits Stewart with helping him “fine-tune this sense of smell and fully understand the profiles of all the William Grant & Sons products and the history of how they have evolved over the years.”

3. MATURITY IS PART OF THE PROCESS.

Kinsman’s chemistry background is of particular benefit to the company when it comes to his understanding of the science of maturation. “I spend a lot of time working with our chemists and coopers analyzing samples of oak and whisky to investigate what is happening during maturation,” Kinsman says. “This allows me to get a better understanding of how each cask is performing and also what we need to do to get the final flavor I am looking for.”

4. TESTING 300 SAMPLES A DAY IS THE NORM.

If you think Kinsman spends his days tasting Scotch, you’re half-right. On any given day, he spends about two to three hours in the sample room. “Some days I might only have 20 or 30 samples to nose from the daily production and on other days I could have 200 or 300 samples to nose,” he says.

5. MORE THAN HALF OF A PRODUCT’S FLAVOR COMES FROM THE CASK. 

A cask is more than just a vessel to hold Scotch while it matures; choosing the right one is essential to the production process. “The cask contributes over half the flavor of the final bottled whisky as all the oaky, sweet flavor comes from maturation,” Kinsman says. At Glenfiddich, the majority of the casks are once-used bourbon casks from the U.S. and brand-new, sherry-seasoned ones from Spain. “The American oak casks bring sweet, vanilla, fruity character and the Spanish oak casks deliver a deeper, rich, oily, fruity character,” Kinsman says.

6. ONE COOPERAGE IS IMPRESSIVE; TWO IS BETTER.

The casks are so important to the process that the company maintains two cooperages: one in Speyside, and the other at the grain distillery in the south of Scotland. “It is a huge benefit to have direct control of the cooperage and to be able to speak directly with the coopers themselves about the quality of our casks,” Kinsman says. Becoming a cooper is no easy task, either. “Glenfiddich coopers apprentice for approximately five years (as long as a doctor) and work with incredible speed and agility to assemble, repair, or reconstruct around 25 casks every day.”

7. THE GOVERNMENT DICTATES WHAT RAW MATERIALS CAN BE USED IN THE SCOTCH-MAKING PROCESS.

“Because of the way Scotch whisky is enshrined in law, we can only use three raw materials: water, yeast, and whole grain cereal,” Kinsman says. “For single malt, the cereal is 100 percent malted barley.” But that doesn’t mean that Kinsman doesn’t get to experiment with more exotic ingredients: “I am in a lucky position of managing all spirits for the company and therefore get involved with innovation in non-Scotch whisky, too, where we have experimented with a massive range of fruits (from grapefruit through to strawberries and raspberries) as well as the rose and cucumber infusions for Hendrick’s Gin. Those experiments are always fun.”

8. SCOTLAND'S RAINY CLIMATE IS PARTLY WHAT MAKES THE PRODUCT "SCOTCH."

The reason why Scottish whisky has its own designation and a separate location in the liquor aisle is largely a result of the country’s climate. “One of the key factors is having a plentiful supply of clean, pure water, and with all the rain we get, this is not a problem,” Kinsman says. “The environment also plays a crucial role in maturation and the cool, damp atmosphere in our warehouses means we get slow, steady maturation, which is perfect for aging of the single malt.”

9. SMALL STILLS MAKE BETTER SCOTCH.

Glenfiddich's distillery houses 28 handmade, 11-foot copper stills that are uniquely shaped and much smaller than those of their competitors. (They’ve been the same size and shape since the very beginning.) Another distinction of the brand is that “we have a very high cut point,” Kinsman says. “This means we only collect spirit that is light and fruity and doesn’t have any heavy, oily character at all. We then mature everything at the distillery in casks maintained by our own coopers.”

10. TRADITION RULES, BUT EFFICIENCY IS IMPORTANT.

With the exception of a few efficiency tweaks, very little has changed about the way the Glenfiddich team makes its product. “We use a single source of water from the Robbie Dhu spring for the entire production and we then maintain the same process as started by William Grant over 125 years ago,” says Kinsman, who notes that the specific location of a distillery also has an effect on the final product. “The key to maintaining product quality is introducing new technology while respecting the traditional practice and ensuring the spirit quality and character doesn’t change. So, for example, we have introduced new engineering solutions to reduce energy usage and to manage the temperature of our condensers, but each time anything is introduced we spend a huge amount of time testing the spirit to make sure it stays consistent throughout.”

11. THE DISTILLERY CAN PRODUCE UP TO 10 MILLION LITERS OF SCOTCH PER YEAR.

That’s roughly the equivalent of five Olympic-sized swimming pools.

12. AMERICANS DRINK THE MOST SCOTCH.

Though Glenfiddich is consumed around the world, the good ol’ USA is the company’s top market in terms of both sales and consumption.

13. YOU COULD SPEND $94,000 ON A SINGLE BOTTLE OF GLENFIDDICH.

Following the 2012 death of Janet Sheed Roberts—the oldest woman in Scotland at the age of 110, and company founder William Grant’s granddaughter—Glenfiddich paid tribute to her life with a vintage 55-year-old Scotch. They produced just 11 bottles (one for every decade she lived), one of which sold for $94,000

14. BUILDING THE GLENFIDDICH DISTILLERY WAS A FAMILY AFFAIR.

It took William Grant and his nine children (seven sons and two daughters) one year and 750,000 stones to build the Glenfiddich distillery.

15. FIFTY MILLION LITERS OF SCOTCH EVAPORATE EACH YEAR.

As a cask ages and breathes, approximately two percent of the alcohol evaporates through the wood and is lost forever. It’s what is known as “The Angels' Share.”

All photos courtesy William Grant & Sons

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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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May 23, 2017
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