Art and Science meet – Mackmyra Intelligens

“It’s going to be interesting to see how society deals with artificial intelligence, but it will definitely be cool.” —Colin Angle, iRobot CEO

Remember when The Terminator first came to theatres? Around the globe people were stunned with the realisation that we might not be the top of the food chain, at least not when Arnie appears in front of you naked. The idea is much older than that series, though the first was a great cinematic piece (yes, the first one is the best and the second one is average, you cannot change my mind about this).

While the term AI can be traced back to a 1956 conference at Dartmouth College in the States, the idea has existed since at least Samuel Butlers ‘Erewhon’ written in 1872 though potentially earlier. Bleeding through our movies, our literature and our thoughts AI typically is what comes to mind when we imagine the eventual apocalypse, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Why am I talking about The Terminator, why am I thinking about AI on a whisky blog? It’s simple really, it’s World Whisky Wednesday once again, and today I’m trying the world’s first whisky with the recipe created by Artificial Intelligence. Today I’m looking at the Mackmyra Intelligence.

Mackmyra have a history of doing things differently. It seems fitting that as a distillery that has consistently moved outside the norm and explored new and exciting possibilities, Mackmyra would be the first to move into such a direction that runs against the grain (no pun intended). As we know, the blender can make or break a whisky, their years of skill and knowledge coming together to make some of our most beloved drams. So what’s the idea behind leaving it down to a computer program?

It all started during a meeting, with future of whisky being discussed. Who was there? Mackmyra and Microsoft, weirdly enough. Now I don’t know the words that were spoken behind those closed doors, though I can imagine it went something like this;

‘So what does the future of whisky look like?’

‘Well, you’d want to find out the flavours and tastes that people tend to enjoy, and give them that. Tracking all that data would require something enormous however.’

‘Oh we have that technology! We’re Microsoft, we have all the tech. Let me call someone, this sounds like a great change from slideshows and graphs.’

As I said, I don’t know what really happened but I imagine it was something like that, though it likely took a bit longer. So, Microsoft called someone; Fourkind. A Finnish technology consultant, Fourkind have a long and interesting story on their website but it can be boiled down to the basics.

Sales data, marketing data, what sold well and what didn’t all of this makes for a very interesting information dump, though if you were a human mind attempting to sort through it you would be skeletal remains before you got to the end. With Fourkind on board, having access to this data (and the use of Microsoft’s Machine Learning Studio) meant that they could take the information and begin to push out various different recipes based on existing whiskies, their sales data and customer feedback. All this information plus the current stock of casks Mackmyra had available was fed into the system, where the A.I could create recipes that take the cores of these whiskies create something new. 2 + 2 is 4, right?

But hold on, doesn’t this take away from the human aspect of the whisky? Doesn’t this turn our whisky over to the hands of machines, that will gradually and inevitably force us to drink their whisky that we must purchase with our bitcoins mined from the internet, fuelling our ever growing robot overlords until we have naught but a bottle full of engine oil left? Well, no. Not at all really. Mackmyra’s Master Blender and Chief Nose Officer Angela D’Orazio had something of her own to say about it.

“The work of a Master Blender is not at risk. While the whisky recipe is created by AI, we still benefit from a person’s expertise and knowledge, especially the human sensory part, that can never be replaced by any program. We believe that the whisky is AI-generated, but human-curated. Ultimately, the decision is made by a person.”

So a machine and an algorithm can create these recipes, whether they are good, bad or ugly, but it does take a human mind and more importantly a human nose and palate to discern which of these recipes is worth bottling and which are worth binning.

So what goes into the whisky? Many casks, many variables. Using a variety of 200, 100 and 30 litres casks comprised of ex-bourbon, Swedish, American Oak barrels and more, Fourkind’s algorithm produced around 60 million recipes. Angela D’Orazio finally broke down the many millions into around 10 remaining recipes before deciding a winner based on taste (she is the real machine when it comes to whisky). Now, I’m no techspert, I’m really just Somewhiskybloke, so I’m curious about what an AI program would create. Let’s pour a measure into a glass and find out….

The nose presents a full bakery ready for the morning breakfast, apricot danishes with a raisin loaf, piping hot and straight from the oven before glazed with a vanilla and marzipan icing mixed thickly with cinnamon and pistachio cream. Stewed marmalade follows and gets dropped atop a rhubarb crumble, and then it turns into a liquid lunch, cloud berry wine, cassis and goose berry wine. Some notes of thick coffee beans to help us sober up and then we head into sweets. Strawberry ice-cream filled packed with toffee, dark chocolate and liquorice served with sticky dried fruit strips. It’s very open on the front but starts to become more pungent at the back, all through the dram there is a single back note that’s slightly metallic, like an over running motor and a hint of hot copper. Is that the A.I talking?

The palate is tasty, plenty of fruits and sweetness with the danishes coming back, rum and raisin chocolate, toffee, ginger and hints of pipe tobacco smoke. A light touch of floral roses, quince and plums and the coffee beans have gone full blown affogato. We get a touch of citrus again, more grapefruit than anything else. And then the finish is long and peppery, citrus, ginger and hits of mint with a touch of bay leaf. The metallic taste comes back but whether it’s the A.I speaking through the whisky or just my imagination it’s anyone’s guess. Maybe there’s an equation for that.

This is a brilliant whisky. The story behind it, the willingness to expand and create, the nose, the taste, even the bottle feels nice with the dimples on the bottom and that lovely metal cap on the cork (if anyone knows what that is, let me know, I think its awesome).

I could end it there but something is bugging me, I love this whisky but I am sad that its creation could overshadow the whisky itself. Lets be clear, I agree completely with Angela, Master Blenders aren’t going anywhere any time soon. The human element is a core role to whisky creation and that will never change. What I mean that the sheer ingenuity behind it could lead people to focus to heavily on the creation component as opposed to the whisky itself (as I may have unfortunately done), and this whisky is just damn amazing.

I’ve often said that whisky is a work of art, and I hear the phrase art vs science thrown around a lot but this whisky proves that the two can work together. To paraphrase Amit Ray, Pioneer of Compassionate AI Movement,

“The coming era of Artificial Intelligence will not be the era of war, but be the era of deep compassion, non-violence, love, and great whisky.”

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If you would like to learn more about Mackmyra, click here to discover their story, and here to see their range of whiskies.

This review is not sponsored or endorsed by any distillery, Mackmyra or otherwise, and is entirely the words of the author Somewhiskybloke.

 

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