In October 2011, Scotland’s Ardbeg Distillery launched a handful of samples of their famous Scotch whisky into space. The vials spent three years on the International Space Station after being brought there on a cargo ship. Another identical sample of the whisky was stored at the Islay distillery. On Saturday, September 13, after three years in space, the samples returned to Earth, landing in Kazakhstan. They didn’t go back to Scotland.
The samples, containing a small quantities of new-make spirit as well as a shards of charred oak from Ardbeg’s casks, are currently catching up with their earthbound brother to a laboratory in Houston. “Scientists will compare the two samples,” explains Ardbeg Distillery manager Michael Heads, "examining the interaction of the Ardbeg-crafted molecules with charred oak to document what differences occur between Earth whisky and space whisky.” Their mission: to change the whisky industry for good.
Specifically, the scientists aboard the ISS were tasked by NanoRacks, a space logistics firm, with investigating the behavior of terpenes, the primary ingredient in oils secreted by plants, in microgravity. According to the NASA briefing, the scientific purpose was "finding new chemical building blocks for their products through microgravity extraction of the terpenes from wood samples.” In other words, Ardbeg was testing whether it could more easily alter flavor using organic compounds if the whisky being altered was in zero g.
“The sample was housed in a vial, specially designed for the mission and it orbited the Earth’s atmosphere at 17,227 miles per hour, 15 times a day for 1,045 days,” says Heads. If that seems like an unlikely step up from “cask aged,” it’s because it is. Ardbeg wasn’t just doing research, they were winning the distillery space race. That’s good press and good fun. Head puts it thusly: “We hope to shine new light on the effect of gravity on the maturation process but who knows where it will lead us? It could be to infinity and beyond.”
It’s a bit trite, but there is certainly some logic in what Ardbeg is doing. NASA's accidental innovations (memory foam, insoles, ear thermometers) are a thing of legend so it make sense that a competitive advantage might be found in space. Zero-gravity whiskey sounds odd now, but it might be the future. And outer space is only slightly harder to get to than the Inner Hebrides.
Photos by Flickr.com/helen_1977