The bizarre pursuit of otherworldly whisky

7 Sep 2015

In the past few weeks, we’ve been awash with news of whisky, rockets and a bizarre pursuit of space-aged perfection. Have we gone insane?

Last month, Japanese whisky company Suntory set aside a few vials of its finest product to send up to the International Space Station (ISS).

No, not for NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, or cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, to get smashed. Rather, to investigate how zero gravity can affect their ageing process.

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 reason Kelly and Kornienko are up there.

Hang on, there is some theory

The theory goes that alcohol develops a more mellow flavour when its high-dimensional molecular make-up is put through its paces outside of a natural Earth environment – for example, where liquid convection is heavily suppressed.

Essentially, it’s a way of speeding up the ageing process, which itself mellows out the taste of most alcoholic drinks, all while the ISS circles the planet 15 times a day.

The view from the ISS, via Scott Kelly

The view from the ISS, via Scott Kelly

What will Suntory achieve? Well, we can look across the Irish sea to find out, as Scotch whisky company Ardbeg is a few years ahead of its Japanese counterpart.

Sending its own vials up several years ago, Ardbeg received its returned samples last September, and it’s been studying them ever since.

The vials – made up of whisky and bits of charred oak – have been compared to Earthly replicants and the differences sound… horrendous.

What’s that smell?

Where the Earth samples smelled of cedar wood, sweet smoke and aged balsamic vinegar, the ISS alternative had notes of antiseptic smoke, rubber and smoked fish.

Mmmmm, antiseptic rubbery fish, goes down easy.

In actuality, there is some logic to the test, and some interesting results. For example, the ISS sample’s alcohol-by-volume (ABV) was 56pc, over 2pc down on the Scotland-based sister sample.

A research goldmine

Research into the minute molecular make up of different whiskies could lead to a scientific way to manufacture drinks that immediately taste 30 years of age.

Until then, though, we’re left with some weird-smelling booze.

But that’s not all. If it gets to the stage where whisky sent up to the ISS is there for Kelly, Kornienko and their colleagues’ consumption, there has even been a glass developed to enjoy a sip in zero gravity.

Whisky Whiskey glass in space

“This is about getting ourselves ready,” said Peter Moore, brand director at Ballantine’s, the makers of the glass.

“Space tourism is going to develop. Personally, I think it’s going to develop quite quickly.”

What starts with scientific experimentation into molecular impacts in zero gravity ends with drinking tours of the Earth’s orbit.

We’ve done it, humans!

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic