See these otherworldly landscapes—created by whisky

After the spirit was consumed, this photographer discovered the sediment left at the bottom of a glass can create surreal imagery.

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Scotch whisky can leave sediment behind in a glass. Using colored lights and photo-editing software, photographer Ernie Button turned Macallan Scotch dregs into this planetary pretender.
This story appears in the July 2019 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Washing dishes—the most ordinary of chores—led photographer Ernie Button on a decadelong discovery of a fantasy universe. While placing an empty whisky glass in the dishwasher, he noticed at the bottom a thin residue of evaporated alcohol—specifically, Scotch, the term for a whisky aged more than three years in oak barrels in Scotland. When the last drops of alcohol dried up, they left sediment from the whisky’s distillates. Button took the glass to his studio, laid it on its side, and took pictures.

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Residue from the barrels in which distillates were aged forms lavalike waves in a glass that held Glenlivet Scotch. Button created different effects with tools including colored lights and editing software.
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Particulate forms a blossom-like vortex in a glass that held Macallan, a single malt Scotch whisky produced according to strict regulations in Scotland. (Whiskey spelled with an e is produced elsewhere.)

The whisky-sediment patterns are like snowflakes; each has a unique design. They all, however, are light gray until Button lights them with multicolored lamps. The gray lines and swirls spring to life and make the rich designs resemble colorful landscapes of planets and moons. “I think of it as drinks and a show,” he says. Through trial and error, Button found that only Scotch whiskies accumulate enough sediment. The oldest he’s photographed is a 25-year-old whisky. (Verdict: no big difference.)

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“You just have to look closely” at the bottom of a whisky glass, says photographer Ernie Button.

In contrast to photographers who shoot epic scenes in exotic locales, Button looks inward and stays local. Before photographing spirits, he created landscapes with breakfast cereal boxes and chronicled the disappearance of coin-operated rides at grocery stores. Button’s work proves there are wild things to be observed in everyday life, even in dirty dishes.

Lunar landscapes, made to order

Any celestial body might have its creation story—but how many come with a recipe? Consider the moonlike images here, which actually are pancakes. As they prepared breakfast, web designer Nadine Schlieper and photographer Robert Pufleb were struck by the lunar features they saw in pancakes, from the cratering bubbles as the batter fried to the mottled finished product. The pair ended up making and photographing scores of hotcakes, and reflecting on how images can mislead. They called their project Alternative Moons, in a play on “alternative facts,” a term coined by a Trump White House spokesperson. Schlieper and Pufleb turned the project into a book, complete with the pancake recipe below; the book won first prize at the Vienna PhotoBook Festival in 2017.

Alternative Moons Pancakes
Ingredients:

  • 500 ml buttermilk
  • 3 eggs
  • 6 heaped tablespoons flour
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 teaspoon sunflower oil for each pancake

Instructions:

  • First mix the buttermilk, eggs and salt in a blender. Then add the flour until the dough is creamy, just slightly fluid.
  • Put the oil in a preheated pan (28 cm diameter), add one scoop of dough, space out evenly and fry on both sides for two minutes.
  • You may vary the amount of type of flour (whole grain, wheat or other) and/or the size of the eggs in order to get different results in surface structure or desired degree of browning. which also depends on frying time and temperature. Enjoy your own personal moon expeditions—and the pancake as well!

Celestial objects, or everyday ones?

The objects in Christopher Jonassen’s photo project look like they might be found in deep space. In reality, the Norwegian photographer found them deep in kitchen cabinets and campers’ mess kits. That’s why Jonassen titled the project Devour. Although they resemble planets, the orbs are the homely bottoms of cooking pots and pans. Jonassen’s been taking the photos since 2003, inspired by kitchen items in a home he was sharing. The beat-up utensils told stories of everyday use and the wear and tear it causes—and yet theyhad an otherworldly beauty. Over the years Jonassen has photographed hundreds of pans and revealed what he calls “the planets hidden inside,” using only lighting and basic Photoshop to heighten the effects. Some of his favorites sprang from utensils that served especially rough duty: the pots and pans that Boy Scouts used when cooking over campfires.