Biopoetics: Strawberry Compositions

I’m so thankful to UnLost magazine for publishing this poem last month; you can read it here or listen to it: here. You can find the scientific journal article it was ‘found’ in here.

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Me, working a forest community ecology project in Geneseo, that included lots of black walnut tree hugging.

This poem was directly inspired by a paper entitled ‘The allelopathic effects of juglone and walnut leaf extracts on yield, growth, chemical and PNE compositions of strawberry cv. Fern’ by S. Ercisli, A. Esitken, C. Turkkal, and E. Orhan, published in 2005.

The paper, as the title suggests, looked at the effects of juglone (a chemical produced by plants in the Juglandaceae family, like walnuts) and Persian walnut leaf extracts on the yield, growth, chemical and plant nutrient element composition of strawberry plants. Juglone occurs in pretty much every part of walnut trees – including the roots, bark, leaves, and fruit – and is known to have toxic/growth stunting effects on nearby plants. In my part of the world, it’s why we’ll sometimes see stands (groups) of black walnut trees growing isolated from other species; the juglone in the leaves that drop to the forest floor every year, and in the roots, causes many other species to die off if they are sensitive to juglone (like potatoes, pine trees, white birch, or eggplants).

This paper looked at the sensitivity of strawberry plants to direct juglone treatments and walnut leaf extract treatments (of varying concentrations). They found that the plant’s growth was inhibited by all treatments, and that strawberry plants also produced less leaves and fruits (and smaller leaves and fruits) when subjected to juglone treatments. Extract and juglone treatments also impaired the ability of the strawberry plants to grow roots and uptake nutrients from the surrounding environment. It looked like, based on some of their graphs, diluting the concentration of the walnut leaf extract decreased the negative effect of the extract on plant growth.

The overall picture? It appears that strawberries are pretty sensitive to juglone; if you want a good yield, avoid planting them directly under a walnut tree (particularly black walnuts – which have the highest concentration of this phytotoxin)! The good news is, juglone is not very water-soluble and thus doesn’t travel far in soil. The highest concentration will occur directly under the canopy of the tree – so the further out you go, particularly once you exit the ‘root zone’, the better off your plants will be. Other trees – shagbark hickory, for one – do also contain juglone, but at a low enough concentration to generally not affect even the more juglone-sensitive plants.

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STEM Pipeline is Gushing Women

Many of you have probably heard of the STEM pipeline dripping – that is, the idea that we’re losing lots and lots of students at each step of the educational process. Perhaps the step that is most relevant to me as someone who wants to go on to be a professor: only about half of those students who enter college in a STEM major will graduate with a STEM degree. This is already a sad pronouncement – we are losing so many of our students to things like poor class and assessment design, a lack of awareness of mental health issues, and a dearth of research opportunity to keep people engaged. These are all problems that, as a student of the PROFESS program at Drexel, I aim to learn about fixing.

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Me, a young woman scientist, STEMMING it my senior year in undergrad.

But to actually have an impact, I will need to become a professor – and the STEM pipeline prognosis for women, and for minorities, is sadly far worse than that for overall scientists. According to a UC Berkeley study on chemists, women make up roughly 50% of college graduates in the field – but only 37% of PhDs, 22% of associate professors, and a measly 12% of tenured professors. There are many things that explain this ‘drip’ of women from the field (feels more like a gush than a drip, honestly) – they include everyday sexism from the ‘good old boys club’ of science that goes all the way to the top, wanting to earn higher salaries outside of academia, or needing time to start a family – which might not be compatible with the format of tenure-track jobs.

What I think this study, and others like it, show is that we’ve done a good job with outreach to girls to get them interested in science – despite the fact that female scientists are historically forgotten about in favor of their male counterparts (*cough* Rosalind Franklin *cough*) in our culture and the classroom, and despite the fact that science is more actively marketed to boys, we still see about 50% of our undergrads are women in several (though not all) STEM fields. Certainly, more outreach to young girls would not hurt, particularly in fields like IT, Engineering, and Physics where women are still under-represented even in bachelors programs. But this quote really resonated with me, about what the actual problem is here:

“You can tell a girl she’s smart her whole life, encourage her in school, buy her a chemistry set, send her to math camp, help her apply for college scholarships in STEM fields, and she’s still eventually going to walk into a classroom, a lab, or a job interview and have some man dismiss her existence, deny her funding, pass her over for a promotion, or take credit for her work. How about you work on getting those [people] out of power and quit telling me not to call girls pretty” – kelsium

And this idea, that men in science are actively not supporting women in science, has some pretty significant data behind it. An article in PNAS showed that elite labs run by men (and regular labs run by men) were significantly less likely to hire/train women PhD and postdocs than those run by women. In contrast, elite labs run by women were more likely to hire women than men – but by a less significant margin; and non-elite labs run by women showed no bias, unlike non-elite labs run by men. This problem is multiplied by the fact that there are more Academy/elite male scientists than females (in Chemistry, females make up only 6% of the National Academy of the Sciences chemists) – which means that in 94% of elite labs there’s an anti-woman bias.

The study in PNAS does indicate that they don’t know how many women applied to work in these labs – though they cite high rates of sexual harassment and negative attitudes towards maternity as reasons why many women may steer clear of male-dominated labs. The bottom line is that women in STEM are not being treated fairly or given access to equal opportunities – not really surprising, given how recently women were even allowed to start having careers at all.

Undeniably, women have made incredible strides in the last sixty to eighty years – at least at the undergraduate level. But the anti-woman bias held by the ‘good old boys club’ that has been the norm for the past 600 years of science needs to change and effort needs to go into enacting policies that work from the top down. Policies that support women in cases of sexual harassment, hiring bias, and family planning. Until these policies are enacted, no matter how many chemistry sets we give our young girls, we will not see a change in the gushing STEM pipeline for women.

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An Introduction to the Social Spider Project

I’m about to begin a series of posts on social spiders – yes, those creepy crawly arthropods we all despise – to give some background information on a research project that my PI and I have been developing for a while (now in pre-proposal stage). My hope is that this series of bite-sized bits of my project, the theory behind it, and the journey of the research itself will be interesting enough to turn some of the fear we have into curiosity. As a child I was terrified of spiders, and made my father ‘take care of’ any of the unfortunate few that wandered into my room; but through all this research, I’ve actually developed a (very small) fondness for the little guys, and I hope I can share that fondness with you.

We’ll start this introduction by discussing the study organism itself – the spider. In this study, we’ll be looking at closely related spider species that differ dramatically in one major type of behavior – sociality. There are three ‘types’ of this behavior – solitary, subsocial, and social.

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Found on the @ApprenticeRPG twitter

Solitary spiders are the ones most of us are probably familiar with – you know, the spider that chills out on its own web or wanders around on the ground by itself. It meets with other spiders for mating, but that’s the extent of its desire to socially interact.

Subsocial spiders are those that engage in some social behaviors – perhaps they live together or engage in cooperative prey capture maneuvers, but they also have some kind of obligate solitary phase. This could be a particular season of the year or a particular age that they spend alone, or they could even have communal webs but with marked, individual territories. The behaviors here are really diverse.

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Photo Credit: Donna Garde, Texas Parks & Wildlife, link through photo.

Lastly, you have the social spiders. For people with arachnophobia this is probably the WORST thing ever because if you find one spider, you know there are bound to be many more nearby. Social spiders engage in cooperative maternal care, nest maintenance, and prey capture behaviors and live together pretty much 24/7 – except during dispersal, when young spiders leave the nest to venture out into the world alone.

Social spiders come in various shapes and sizes just like the more familiar solitary spiders; you have larger huntsman in Australia that can have up to 300 spiders in a colony and the smaller Anelosimus (the spiders I’ll be working with, known as cobweb spiders) found throughout the Americas – Anelosimus eximus, a species I’ll be working with frequently, can have tens of thousands of spiders in a web (found as far north as Panama, though there are other Anelosimus in the US). There are other social spiders found throughout the world, in varying colors, numbers, sizes, and with varying behaviors.

That’s it for today’s introduction to the project – be sure to check back for future installments on spider brains, brain resource allocation theory, social spider behavior, and more!

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New Years Goals: 2017

With the New Year comes new year’s resolutions – which are typically a bit of a mess, in my opinion. Oft hyped but rarely completed, resolutions are something you find on a scrap piece of paper three years later and realize you (maybe) achieved one of the eight things on your list.

Nevertheless, as an eternal optimist, I make resolutions every year without fail and, usually, one or two of them happen. As I get older, my resolutions have gotten more tailored to my actual desires (no ‘run a marathon’) and less numerous – I think, more reasonable overall.

So here are my, hopefully modest, new year goals, not resolutions. Next year, I’ll hopefully be able to reflect back on these and feel like I achieved something significant – just like in my 2016 Wrap Up post.

  1. Finish gathering data for the Eciton army ant project
  2. Maintain an active blog presence here, with at least one post a week
  3. Develop my board game idea into a reality
  4. Publish three more poems
  5. Have my committee and thesis ideas outlined for my PhD

What’s on your list for 2017? How do you feel about New Years Resolutions/goals? Let me know in the comments and thanks, as always, for reading.

 

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A Year in Review: 2016

I’d like to round off the year with a review of all I was able to do – sometimes, when the days are long and hard, the goals and accomplishments of the overall year get lost in the shuffle. But the goals of this year deserve to be celebrated – so here we go!

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Although it feels like a lifetime ago already, two of my biggest scientific accomplishments this year were my senior year projects at Geneseo. My honors thesis in Biology, a forest community ecology project that looked at the impact of the emerald ash borer at Nations Road Reserve, was both crazy and rewarding (and taught me how much I hate software programs that don’t do all they advertise…). I got to do a huge presentation of my results to all the faculty at GREAT day, and write what was a pretty good paper about all that I’d found (which was not encouraging for the ash trees, but pretty okay for the forest overall).

Additionally, I completed a project that took three or four times longer than expected – my survey of native pollinators in the Geneseo Area. This project solidified my love of Hymenoptera and taught me a lot about social and solitary bees, factors that affect their abundance, ways to collect them efficiently, what biases factor into various collection mechanisms, and more. I left behind at Geneseo a truly impressive insect collection, well-labelled with IDs and collection metadata and (mostly) expertly pinned. The love of bees this project fostered in me still won’t shake, and I’m working on developing bee-related theses projects for my PhD.

As for grad school, this quarter had me pretty intensely involved in one ongoing project, two brand new projects, and a killer lab class that might actually turn into a pretty neat paper opportunity. This quarter I’ve learned a ton of histological techniques (slicing, staining, and quantifying brain sections) on army ants, where I’m helping finish up a project that looks at brain resource allocation across castes and species. I’ve also been working pretty intensely on ‘the mitonuclear project’ and ‘the social spider brains project’. Both of these are pre-proposal level projects, so I don’t want to give too much away about them yet, but they’ve solidified my molecular (PCR, gel electrophoresis, DNA extraction, etc) and histological skills, and also given me the opportunity to start learning about staining and using a confocal microscope. I feel like grad school has already given me a huge boost to my overall skill set. Lastly, my molecular ecology lab churned out some data that helped me gain experience with sequence analysis using the bacterial communities found in the guts of army ants.

Science is slow. 2016 didn’t give me any publications or big ‘newsworthy’ events (other than passing this quarter, damn that was rough) but I did gain a bunch of new skills and knowledge, and I’ve furthered my scientific career by pushing forward with several really cool projects on everything from ants, to microbes, to spiders.

My two top notebooks right now - spiders and poetry.
My two top notebooks right now – spiders and poetry.

Writing:

While time for writing has been seriously lacking since September, I think 2016 was overall a really good year for me as a writer. Fun fact: more of my written and creative work has entered the world in 2016 than any other year of my life. By a substantial margin, too; prior to 2016, I’d only had two poems and one 15-minute play published.

Let’s take a look at what happened in 2016:

  • My play, Experimental Ambiguity, was performed for a full house
  • My gamebook app, The Burning Trees of Ormen Mau, went ‘live’ in August on iOS and Android
  • I had six articles published for The Key Reporter, plus all the posts on this website (which is new!)
  • I had twenty one poems accepted for publication in eleven different magazines

So maybe 2016 didn’t end on the most writing-productive note, but I’d say it’s still a big win overall for my writing career.

For all of you, my first followers, mostly family and good friends – thanks for following, commenting, subscribing to my email list, and overall supporting me in my scientific and writing careers. Particular thanks goes out to my fiance, Alex, my uncle John, my parents, and my brother – without you, I would have fewer poems, science projects, blog posts, and, most importantly, hours of joy and purpose in my life. You are a big part of what helps me be successful and I can’t express to you how grateful I am to always have your support.

2016 was pretty great… and here’s to an even better 2017!

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From Gamer to Writer

Often, as creators, we take inspiration from the myths, legends, or work of those who came before us – game developer Ziba Scott has taken that to a whole new level with the game Elegy for a Dead World, available on Steam (a gaming platform that any serious computer gamer should have).

Elegy for a Dead World visualizes for us the end-of-world poetry of three British romantic poets – Byron, Shelley, and Keats. We, the player, are immersed in the worlds of these lost civilizations and are instructed to keep a diary that we send back to the homeworld (a communal archive of sorts on Steam that other players can see) with our observations – in the form of stories, poetry, songs, etc. We can choose if to tell ‘their story’, ‘my story’, or keep a ‘scientific journal’. The game itself guides you through these worlds as you explore via constant side-scrolling motion, and can prompt you to construct various literature. You can edit your prose before sending it to the homeland for good, to make sure it’s as cohesive and stunning as possible. Other players can view your entry and rate it – and you, in turn, can see if others saw the same story that you did in these ancient worlds. No rush, however, to ‘publish’ your work; the game never requires you to make your work visible to other players unless you wish to.

The game is different from the typical gaming experience in almost every possible way – there are no levels or quests, no time limits and no way to be wrong or lose. But Elegy for a Dead World could be the kind of alternative gaming experience many would enjoy as an introduction to creative storytelling, by prompting them with gorgeous imagery based off of the work of three master writers. It seems like a great way to combat writer’s block and a great introduction to descriptive, imaginative writing for those new to the craft and unsure of what to write about. I can’t wait to get exploring when I have some free time myself!

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Merry Christmas!

1934077_1201316849883033_6746702421272410645_nMerry Christmas, today, to all you amazing fellow humans! Though this post is not science or writing related, I thought I would share with you a recipe for soup that my family enjoys with my grandmother every Christmas Eve – something to warm us during those cold, NY holiday evenings. If you try it, let me know what you think; I’m happy to be able to share this holiday meal with all of you, as well as my amazing family back home.

Grandma Zimmer’s Soup

  1. Brown three pounds of stew beef in olive oil, at the bottom of a large soup pot (my grandmother also throws in a soup bone for added flavor).
  2. Add two cups of tomato juice, six cups of water, 2 bay leaves, 2 Tbsp Worcester sauce, and 1 Tbsp salt.
  3. Bring to a boil then reduce to a barely-there simmer; let cook, covered, for 2 hours.
  4. Add 2 cups each of finely chopped carrots, potatoes, celery, and coleslaw (shredded cabbage).
  5. Let cook, covered, for another 1.5 hours. Serve!

If you’re not really a soup person, you can always halve the tomato juice, water, Worcester sauce, and salt and you’ll get a pretty thick stew instead.

It’s amazing to me how simple holiday traditions, like a bowl of soup on Christmas Eve, can come to mean so much to us over time. Does your family have a holiday tradition, cookie recipe, special meal etc? Feel free to share with me below. Happy holidays to all – and Merry Christmas to those who are celebrating today.

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SINNERS 16: Social Insect Conference

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Photo courtesy of the SINNERS FB page.

December 10th and 11th, I had the absolute pleasure of attending my first scientific conference while in grad school – the SINNERS (Social Insects iN the North-East RegionS) meet up, for social insect entomologists in the NE US. The conference was hosted by the Powell lab at George Washington University, and was a rollicking good time – the sort of party only social insect people can put on, you get me?

This was my first time at a conference like this, so I gave a little lightning talk about my burgeoning social spider project (yeah, social spider. You heard me). It was really well received, and people had great questions even though I strayed from the ‘insects’ part on the conference name a tad (SANNERS – social arthropods – doesn’t have as nice a ring, I guess). I thought I’d give you a really small taste of just a few of the amazing presentations given at the conference that really excited me.

Ant-mimicking rove beetles – Dr. Joseph Parker from Columbia University

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Photo courtesy of a PDF poster download from Dr. Parker’s website

 Dr. Joseph Parker gave a talk entitled “Evolution and development of rove beetle myrmecophiles” (you can read more about this here, in a paper he published). Myrmecophile literally just means ‘myrmeco’ – ant – and ‘phile’ – loving; basically, species other than ants that capitalize on the structure of the ant society. In the case of these beetles, many live within ant colonies, receiving food and protection from the ants they mimic. However, ants are obviously not a huge fan of these thieves, and thus the beetles have to do their best to chemically and morphologically mimic the ants of the colony they are infiltrating – which some beetle species have done really well.

You can see a picture on the left of the incredible mimicry in form that these beetles undergo in order to be able to pass as ants (to ants!) and thus live in ant colonies. Dr. Parker’s talk mentioned how the benefits of successful ant-mimicry led to multiple independent evolutions of the behavior, and how novel glands had even been developed in particular beetle species to ‘control’ the host species. In particular, he mentioned an ‘adoption’ secretion which causes the ants to pick up the beetle, carry it into the colony, and deposit it in the brood (egg) chamber for it to feast on the baby ants. Other beetles are also able to use the ant alarm pheromone and pass other chemical ‘tests’ required when living in a hostile ant colony.

Snap and Trap Jaw Ants – Dr. Fredrick Larabee

 

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Trap-jaw ants Photos from Antweb.org, and from Larabee’s website

The above video is of Plectroctena mandibularis, an African snapping ant; it was posted by @DrStrangeAnt to Twitter on December 10th, and gives you an idea of how fast and powerful these ants’ jaws are.

Dr. Fredrick Larabee, from the National Museum of Natural History, gave a great talk entitled “Kinematics and Functional Morphology of the Snapping Ant, Mystrium camillae”.  We got to see amazing, up-close videos of the snapping jaws of different ant species – the Mystrium and the Mymoteras. The Mymoteras video was particularly incredible – it was taken at 1 million frames per second, in order to be fast enough to capture the snapping jaw. It’s one of (if not the) fastest animal movement on the planet. Mystrium is less impressive, with the video taken at “only” 1 thousand frames per second. The muscle that it takes to power movement that fast is incredible; sections of the ants’ heads show about 90% of the head is made of muscle in Mystrium. Different trap/snap jaw ants use different mechanisms to make their jaws shut, but all of them are lightning fast!

There were other incredible presentations given on thermal tolerance in army ants and how they regulate the temperature of their brood for optimal rearing conditions on the road (army ants are nomadic), math that showed the way ants find the optimal position for making living bridges of their own bodies, and even preliminary thermal imaging results that show how honey bees manage cases of honey bee fever in their colonies.

All in all, the conference was AMAZING and I can’t wait to go again. A huge thanks to the Powell lab for organizing everything this year. What do you think makes for a good conference? Let me know, in the comments!

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‘Bee’ Reviewed: The Sting of the Wild

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Nyx: I lift my paw at you!

Justin Schmidt’s The Sting of the Wild is an exciting adventure into the life histories, habits, and (of course) sting pain of a variety of insects from around the world. Schmidt does not shy away from any level of sting pain – be it the tarantula hawk, the velvet ‘ant’, or even the notorious bullet ant. His index of pain, which you can find in the back of the book, provides poetic descriptions of the stings Schmidt has personally experienced in his time as a researcher. While many may pick up Schmidt’s book specifically because of that index, being curious where particular insects might fall in the ranks (a honey bee is a humble two of four, for reference), the book’s chapters are where the real excitement lies.

The book begins with a balance of basic scientific theory (relating to pain and evolution) and personal stories, and while this part is admittedly perhaps not as fast-paced as later chapters, it lays a good foundation. After pushing through the theory, Schmidt presents chapters chock full of the science and daily lives of our insect friends around the world. Schmidt moves through his experiences with (and what science knows about) stingless bees, bullet ants, tarantula hawks, fire and harvester ants, ‘yellow jackets’ and more before leaving us with the honey bee, the stinging insect that seems to frame many of the interactions the public has with Hymenoptera (the order of bees, ants, wasps).

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Nyx is skeptical that she will be excited by insects…

Reading about these bugs fills one with awe, curiosity, and perhaps a tinge of fear, and Schmidt does a great job making even the boring parts of being an insect (pupation, for example) seem pretty cool. Schmidt is occasionally a tad repetitive when discussing the life cycles of the insects but overall the story moves at a fast clip; and the ability to skip around between chapters is another bonus for those of us that feel constricted by chronology. There are a lot of ways to enjoy this book.

Not surprisingly, given the fascination we have with pain and the book’s storytelling quality, the book has really taken off with publications as important as the New York Times extolling Schmidt’s tale. So you likely don’t need me to tell you it’s good and worth reading, even for the non-entomologist. This is really what makes Schmidt’s novel so magical: it has such a rare capacity to provide joy to such a wide audience, introducing non-entomologists to the wonder-filled world of insects while still providing enough science and story to engage the more knowledgeable. If you’re looking for a fun, nature-filled read, grab this bright yellow book and prepare to get excited about insects!

 

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Biopoetics: Ashenhalted II

I’m so thankful to Firefly magazine for publishing this poem last month; you can read it here (pages 8-9) or listen to it: here.

So this poem rose out of my love of the word ‘ashenhalted’ which I coined in my first poem of my Sugar Maple cycle, Acerum on Fomalhaut b, and from learning (via my brother the distiller) that Jack Daniels whiskey is mellowed over sugar maple timbers. I did some research into that process, called the Lincoln County Process, and this poem takes on the nitty-gritty of that charcoal-making, spirit-purifying process.

To begin, a sugar maple is cut down; typically tall trees are preferred, so I would suspect these are trees mature enough to have created their own fruit (the samara). When a tree is cut down, the roots are cut off from the rest of the tree; the roots will run out of the nutrients provided by the photosynthetic leaves and the rest of the tree will dry out without water from the roots, causing cells to plasmolyze (when the cytoplasm shrinks away from the cell wall due to severe dehydration).

The cutting down of the tree will also impact its environment. Heavy equipment used to cut down the tree will compress the soil, which can cause reduced soil aeration and slower drainage rates, along with making it harder for new roots to push through the compacted dirt. The loss of trees can also make it so that nutrients needed for the growth of new plants are more quickly leached from the soil, with no mature roots to take up excess water. Another impact of mature tree loss is increased sunlight reaching the forest floor; while this can be negative (allowing takeover by invasive species, increasing soil temperature, etc) it can also allow the fruit dropped by that tree to be competitive and grow out of the shade of the mother.

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Making charcoal at Jack Daniels, Jack Daniel Distillery; Public Domain

The cut-down tree is split into planks (4 feet by 2 in. square), which is, in my mind, the approximate height and thickness of a young sapling. The leaves and smaller branches, a lifetime of the tree’s work, are discarded. Pyres are built by stacking 343 planks on top of one another, and four pyres are burned at a time, set alight with 140 proof whiskey, “each pyre tilted so they collapse into each other” (“Charcoal Mellowing”). They are burned outside for two hours before being doused with water; the lumps of charcoal are then ground up. It takes sixteen pyres to make enough for one charcoal mellowing tank.

This charcoal is what is used to filter out the bitterness that is inherent in the whiskey after distillation; while dripping through the charcoal, the bitterness is taken up leaving a smoother product. After a maximum of six months, the charcoal in the tank is flushed with water to remove any whiskey that soaked into the charcoal and the spent charcoal is used to make barbecue brackets and smoking pellets.

Citation for Quote:

“Charcoal Mellowing.” Diffords Guide, n.d., https://www.diffordsguide.com/bartenders-lounge/gentleman-jack/crafting/charcoal-mellowing/9/charcoal-mellowing

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