Nearly four years ago, a Scottish distillery sent a vial of whisky into space in the name of science. The vial returned to Earth in September 2014, and according to the distillery, the whisky was significantly altered by its time in orbit.
Ardbeg Distillery in Islay, Scotland, partnered with NanoRacks to send a vial of unmatured whisky along with charred oak particles to the International Space Station. The experiment was designed to test how microgravity affects terpenes – organic compounds responsible for giving whiskies their distinct flavors. After arriving on the station, the whisky sample was exposed to the oak particles in a sealed container and left to mature over the course of three years. An identical experiment was carried out on Earth as a control.
Both samples were examined and analyzed for comparison. Researchers looked for major differences in non-alcoholic substances produced during the aging process that might add flavor notes to the whisky. Results showed no major differences between the samples; however, there was a noted difference in the effect the oak had on the maturation process. The control sample left on Earth absorbed more flavor from the oak particles than the sample in orbit, indicating that microgravity conditions inhibited oak extraction.
Dr. Bill Lumsden, Ardbeg’s director of distilling, told the Guardian, “Ardbeg already has a complex character, but the results of our experiment show that there is potentially even more complexity that we can uncover, to reveal a different side to the whisky. Our findings may also one day have significant implications for the whisky industry as a whole.”
The most significant differences between the two samples were evident during the tasting process. According to the distillery’s notes, the Earth-based sample was “reminiscent of an aged Ardbeg style, with hints of cedar, sweet smoke and aged balsamic vinegar, as well as raisins, treacle toffee, vanilla and burnt oranges. On the palate, its woody, balsamic flavours shone through, along with a distant fruitiness, some charcoal and antiseptic notes, leading to a long, lingering aftertaste, with flavours of gentle smoke, tar and creamy fudge.”
Compare that to the ISS sample that notes "Its intense aroma had hints of antiseptic smoke, rubber and smoked fish, along with a curious, perfumed note, like violet or cassis, and powerful woody tones, leading to a meaty aroma. The taste was very focused, with smoked fruits such as prunes, raisins, sugared plums and cherries, earthy peat smoke, peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon and smoked bacon or hickory-smoked ham. The aftertaste is intense and long, with hints of wood, antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke.”
While hints of antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke may not sound too appealing, Ardbeg hopes this experiment will help with flavor research and aims to create different flavors with the help of microgravity. They are not the only whisky maker looking to space to improve their product. Last month, a Japanese HTV cargo vehicle brought whisky samples to the ISS from Suntory – a Tokyo-based distillery known for producing the world’s best whisky – to test how microgravity affects the mellowing process.
NanoRacks chief executive Jeffrey Manber commented on the experiment to the BBC saying, "It's hard to find companies willing to be pioneers. To have a partner like Ardbeg that is willing to make this sort of commitment augurs well for the future of commercial space research into flavourings and what it changes for consumer products in general."