Data & Analytics MSP

How Tom Coyer Uses Data Analysis to Visualize Bourbon

Tom Coyer

Tom Coyer had three bottles of bourbon. They had all been made together, the same day in the same batch, and then were stored in three separate barrels. One sat on floor two, one on floor five and one on floor nine, where they remained for 12 years.

Each tasted completely different.

Tom’s analytic mindset took over. He wanted to figure out why.

Why, it turns out, gets into the science of how alcohol evaporates.

For bourbon, distilleries use white barrels. The molecules of alcohol can get through the white oak before the water can get out, so the proof comes down over time.

On higher floors, it’s hotter in the summer and colder in the winter, so more water evaporates than from lower floors.

As a result, the bourbons that had been stored on higher floors had greater depth to them; the greater variations of hot and cold had caused the alcohol to interact with the wood more, as it expanded and contracted.

It’s this analytic mindset that led Tom to Daugherty three years ago, where he’s served in the data analytics and visualization space. He’s also led a bourbon & cocktail class for two years at the Daugherty Minneapolis business unit. It’s really more of a bourbon class, with a couple of cocktails added at the end.

Tom loves working in Data & Analytics because he gets to balance technical skills with creativity — calculating data for analysis, then coupling it with a visually appealing dashboard that provides value.

And it’s the same balance that fuels his passion for bourbon and cocktails.

Making cocktails satisfies his creativity. Crafting a high-quality cocktail starts with understanding how liquors mix together, then tailoring mixtures to fit the tastes of customers. Not too different from being a consultant tailoring solutions to client needs.

With bourbon, it’s the nuances.

Bourbon is made mostly of corn — by legal definition, it has to contain 51 percent of corn or more — so it contains more sugar. It has to be made in the United States and stored for at least two years in a brand-new charred oak barrel. The barrel gives it more of a caramel or vanilla flavor than a scotch or rye whiskey.

The number of factors that can affect the taste (e.g. percentage of corn, location, number of storage years, type of barrel) lead to an astronomical number of palates.

In the case of the mystery with the three bottles, weather patterns over 12 years also greatly affected the taste, so even if the distillery was to try the same experiment today, the taste would differ from 12 years ago.

As Tom tried to figure out why the same bourbon could taste so radically different, he had to mine data for sequences; make predictions that were accurate, informative and powerful; and use them to sharpen his understanding of how the world works.

But, in the same way a meteorologist predicts weather using both current atmospheric data and historical trends and patterns (with an understanding that predictions will be more accurate within days rather than years), Tom had to adapt his bourbon model accordingly.

The Tableau visualization hasn’t yet come out on this; that’s next on his to-do list.

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