Whisky masters and enthusiasts are forever questing for tweaks to traditional distilling and aging methods to create unique flavors of the spirit. They’ll go to the ends of the earth in pursuit of whisky’s secrets – and when they run out of earth, they’re not afraid to head into space.
In 2011, the famous Ardbeg distillery in Scotland partnered with aerospace research company NanoRacks to test the effects of gravity (or lack thereof) on the whisky aging process by sending whisky to the International Space Station and aging it there for two and a half years. Since the available room on any space vessel is extremely limited, a traditional barrel was out of the question. Instead, newly distilled whisky and charred oak wood shavings were placed in a specially designed vial that kept the whisky and wood separated until they reached orbit and the seal between them was broken. A control sample was left back on Earth for comparison.
When the whisky returned to Earth in 2014, a battery of tests confirmed that the microgravity environment made a definitive difference. The ratio of wood extractive compounds found in the space-aged whisky was notably lower than the control sample, creating a dramatically different flavor profile. According to the results of the “organoleptic assessment” (aka, taste-test) released by Ardbeg, the space sample could summarily be described as more peaty and pungent. Whether that’s desirable or not is subjective – either way, it confirms the potential for space-aging to create an untold number of new and unique flavors for whisky.
Seemingly inspired by Ardbeg, the Suntory distillery in Tokyo sent samples of its whiskies to the International Space Station last August. Their experiment is broken up into two groups – one to be aged for a year, and the other to be aged for two or more years. The first group is scheduled to return to Earth sometime next month, but the results may not be publicized until sometime later.
Currently, outer space is identified by international law as one of the four global commons – meaning it is outside the territory and jurisdiction of nation states (the other global commons are the high seas, atmosphere, and Antarctica). So, if space-aged whisky catches on, it makes me wonder what the TTB’s regulatory response would be, if any…