Results Are In: Space Whisky Tastes "Noticeably Different"

Would you prefer antiseptic smoke to cedar wood?

Bill Lumsden, Head Distiller


A space research company called NanoRacks approached Scottish whisky distillery Ardbeg to participate in a very special expedition. In 2011, the two companies sent un-aged whisky to the International Space Station in MixStix—which work almost like glow sticks. When the tubes are cracked by an astronaut, the distilled liquid inside mixes with charred wood shavings. At the same time, the company kept a sample in the distillery on Earth as a control. The goal was to test how the microgravity of space affects terpenes, which are compounds that have an effect on whisky's flavor.

The samples returned back to Earth in September 2014, and the company just released its findings in a white paper. They performed three different analyses: gas chromatography, high-pressure liquid chromatography, and organoleptic assessment (a.k.a. tasting it).

Gas chromatography found no significant differences between the volatile congeners (which are produced during fermentation) in the earthbound sample and the microgravity sample, which is perhaps to be expected.

Then there was the high-pressure liquid chromatography. This analysis looked at the compounds extracted from the wood. In space, charred wood shavings that mingled with the distilled liquid were meant to mimic the way whisky is aged in wood barrels on Earth. Since the surface area to volume ratios weren't an exact match to normal Earth conditions, there were a few anomalies. Beyond that, though, there were a couple of interesting differences between the ISS sample and the control. Here's what director of distilling at Ardbeg, Bill Lumsden, writes in the white paper:

"While it is clear that micro-gravity is inhibiting the release of wood extractives, not all compounds are affected equally, as would be expected in normal conditions. This has resulted in an unusual ratio between the readily extractable compounds and the less readily extractable ones in the ISS samples. This offers the intriguing possibility of using the ratios of such compounds as a potential marker to identify ‘unusual’ maturation characteristics, and thus a means of identifying for example, spurious age claims in whiskies."

This is all intriguing, to be sure. But, what about the taste? Well, it turns out a majority of tasters were able to determine the difference between the space whisky and the regular old earth whisky. And the tasting notes are rather different as well, for what that's worth. From the white paper, again:

Control Sample – a.b.v. 58.4%, reduced to 26% for tasting

Aroma – Very woody, hints of cedar wood, sweet smoke and aged balsamic vinegar. Hints of raisins, treacle toffee, vanilla and burnt oranges. Very reminiscent of an aged Ardbeg style.

Taste – Dry palate, woody/balsamic flavours, sweet smoke and clove oil. A distant fruitiness (prunes/dates), some charcoal and antiseptic notes. The aftertaste is long, lingering and typically Ardbeg, with flavours of gentle smoke, briar wood, tar and some sweet, creamy fudge.

ISS Sample – a.b.v. 56.0%, reduced to 26% for tasting

Aroma – 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. This then leads into very earthy/soil notes, a savoury, beefy aroma, and then hints of rum & raisin flavoured ice cream.

Taste – A very focussed flavour profile, with smoked fruits (prunes, raisins, sugared plums and cherries), earthy peat smoke, peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon and smoked bacon or hickory-smoked ham. The aftertaste is pungent, intense and long, with hints of wood, antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke.

While I can't say that I'd love to drink something that has hints of "antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke," it is notable how different the tasters perceived the two samples. Ardbeg says that this could impact future flavor creations, and it seems to have sparked a trend: Japanese whisky distillery, Suntory announced this summer they're sending their own samples to the ISS to study how flavor mellows as it ages in space. And perhaps once the intrepid whisky scientists have perfected the microgravity booze-making processes, astronauts will be able to enjoy it neat with their own classy cups.

[Via BBC]