Ardbeg is one of my favourite Islay whiskies, and the first distillery I ever visited. In 2011, they sent a small vial of whisky distillate along with shavings from a charred oak barrel to the International Space Station, another vial of the same whisky was kept at the distillery as control. This week, they revealed the findings of how the two whiskies compared, with the space whisky having spent 2.5yrs in space in a white paper [pdf link].
Both samples went through gc, gcms and hplc analysis for organic chemicals produced during the fermentation and maturation process in order to determine if the micro-gravity conditions in space affected the composition of the distillate and whether micro-gravity may be used to develop novel flavours found in whisky. Dr Bill Lumsden, Ardbeg’s director of distilling and whisky creation, discussed the results with the CEO of space research company NanoRacks and whisky expert Charlie Maclean.
The gc and gcms results, testing for alcohols, aldehydes, ketones and esters, found only small differences between the 2 samples. More interestingly, the hplc results that tested the presence of flavour compounds released from contact with wood showed there was a difference between the earth and space samples. The presence of what they call key wood extratives is lower in space samples. They didn’t say whether space conditions affected the actual extraction itself or the rate.
Enough about the scientific process. What does it mean in terms of nose, flavour, finish? Seems the space sample was more intense with different types of nose and aftertaste. Dr Lumsden summarised:
The space samples were noticeably different. When I nosed and tasted the space samples, it became clear that much more of Ardbeg’s smoky, phenolic character shone through – to reveal a different set of smoky flavours which I have not encountered here on Earth before
Tasting notes for earth sample:
- woody aroma, hints of cedar wood, sweet smoke and aged balsamic vinegar
- on the nose, raisins, treacle toffee, vanilla and burnt oranges
- dry palate, woody/balsamic flavours, sweet smoke and clove oil
- fruitiness (prunes/dates), some charcoal and antiseptic notes
- lingering and typically Ardbeg aftertaste, with flavours of gentle smoke, briar wood, tar and some sweet, creamy fudge
Tasting notes for space sample:
- intense and rounded, with notes of antiseptic smoke, rubber, smoked fish and a curious, perfumed note, like cassis or violet
- powerful woody notes, hints of graphite and some vanilla leading into very earthy/soil notes, a savoury, beefy aroma, and then hints of rum & raisin flavoured ice cream
- focused flavour profile, smoked fruits (prunes, raisins, sugared plums and cherries), earthy peat smoke, peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon and smoked bacon or hickory-smoked ham
- pungent, intense and long aftertaste, with hints of wood, antiseptic lozenges and
Does it mean we’ll see distilleries in space some time in the future? It’ll be very expensive, at least in the beginning. I was reading a novel based on Mars colonisation, and I’m convinced this is possible in the future. I envy the people in the next few centuries; they’ll probably think back to us now in the 21st century as doing something so stupid and backwards as drinking whisky distilled at earth gravity.