Suntory time on ISS: Japanese whisky company will send samples to space

5 Aug 2015

A tasting of vintage Suntory whiskies. Photo by Mikael Leppä

Japan’s famous Suntory whisky is being sent to space in order to find a scientific explanation for the process that makes alcohol mellow.

Suntory Global Innovation Center announced the experiment in cooperation with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) last week and the whisky is being prepared for launch later this month.

On 16 August, the Japanese brewing and distilling company will send six samples of whisky and other alcoholic beverages to Kibo, the Japanese Experiment Module aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Some of the samples will remain aboard the ISS for a year in order to study the effects of the microgravity environment – much like the year-long mission of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, but with whisky.

Suntory whisky – well-known to Bill Murray fans

Space-aged whisky

Collaborative research conducted by Suntory and Japanese research institutes suggests that alcohol such as whisky develops a mellower flavour when its high-dimensional molecular structure (comprising water, ethanol and other ingredients) is formed in environments where liquid convection is suppressed.

You can find a convection-free state in a microgravity environment, such as that of the ISS, and so this space experiment has been concocted to verify this hypothesis.

The fact that some alcoholic drinks develop a more mellow flavour when aged has been known for a long time, but research has yet to reveal the mechanism behind this process.

A whisky tasting like no other

While one set of Suntory samples is stored in a convection-free state on Kibo for the coming year, an identical collection of Suntory samples will remain in storage here on Earth.

Whisky connoisseurs won’t be trying space-aged whisky any time soon, though, as these samples will go straight to the lab after their year-long trip for testing (which will also involve tasting) and comparison to the samples that remained on terra firma.

An additional set of samples will remain on ISS for at least two years.

Suntory image via Mikael Leppä/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic