Photographer Ernie Button discovered that whiskey left behind intriguing patterns after it evaporated. Unlike coffee rings, the whiskey leaves behind a more uniform residue. Curious, he contacted researchers at Princeton, who were eventually able to explain why whiskey and coffee dry so differently. They observed three major effects in drying whiskey mixtures. Firstly, the alcohol in whiskey evaporates faster than other components, creating differences in concentration and, therefore, surface tension along the droplet. These variations in surface tension create Marangoni flow, which tends to mix the droplet. Coffee, being non-alcoholic, does not do this.
Whiskey also contains surfactants, low surface tension chemicals, which help pull particulates away from the edge of the droplet so they aren’t trapped there like in coffee. And finally, they found that the polymers in whiskey helped glue particles to the glass so that they were less likely to be carried by the flow. Taken together, these three ingredients – alcohol, surfactants, and polymers – all help make the whiskey stain more uniform. For more, watch the video below, see Button’s website, or check out the research paper. (Image credit: E. Button; research credit: H. Kim et al.; video credit: C&EN; submitted by @tommyjwilson)