Free Advice: Stop Sending Your Whisky Into Outer Space


The results of aging whisky in space are finally in.

In 2011, Dr. Bill Lumsden, master blender at Ardbeg Distillery, sent half a liter of Ardbeg distillate, divided into 6ml aliquots with wood shavings from the inside of a bourbon barrel, to sit in the International Space Station for approximately 2.5 years. Never mind that it costs $10,000 to send a pound into orbit and that a completely empty bourbon barrel can weigh up to 60 pounds, making it near impossible that a real product would ever come of these efforts. This was for science!

So what did we learn?


The distillery said its space samples were "noticeably different" in terms of aroma and taste.
 

And could we get some tasting notes directly from the manufacturer that every website writing about this can blindly lead with?


Ardbeg tasting notes from experiment:

Earth sample: "The sample had a woody aroma, reminiscent of an aged Ardbeg style, with hints of cedar, sweet smoke and aged balsamic vinegar, as well as raisins, treacle toffee, vanilla and burnt oranges.

"On the palate, its woody, balsamic flavours shone through, along with a distant fruitiness, some charcoal and antiseptic notes, leading to a long, lingering aftertaste, with flavours of gentle smoke, tar and creamy fudge."

Space sample: "Its intense aroma had hints of antiseptic smoke, rubber and smoked fish, along with a curious, perfumed note, like violet or cassis, and powerful woody tones, leading to a meaty aroma.

"The taste was very focused, with smoked fruits such as prunes, raisins, sugared plums and cherries, earthy peat smoke, peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon and smoked bacon or hickory-smoked ham. The aftertaste is intense and long, with hints of wood, antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke."

 

Wow, crazy. Except that of course the space sample tasted different: You could pull two samples from casks sitting right next to each other in the bond store after 2.5 years and they could taste significantly different. That’s why most brands combine many barrels together when bottling—to keep the taste consistent from batch to batch. That’s the entire appeal of single barrel bottlings! Aging in oak is a wild, imprecise process, even on Earth. So if you didn’t think that a sample moving at hundreds of miles an hour with barrel shavings that were undoubtedly inconsistent in size and shape at such a small scale would taste different than a sample sitting completely stationary in a lab, then I have an International Space Bridge to sell you.

On the other hand, the chromatography tests—the scientific gold standard for identifying trace substances within a sample that everyone will gloss over in favor of tasting notes of “space whisky”—tell us something different.

An analysis of the volatile congeners— substances created during distillation other than alcohol that contribute to most of the taste and aroma of a distilled beverage—contained in the space sample versus a control sample that was left on earth demonstrated no significant differences between the two. But the high-pressure liquid chromatography tests did show that there was a difference in how the barrel shavings affected the whisky. The sample that stayed on earth actually extracted more from the wood than the space sample, perhaps owing to the effects of microgravity. Outer space: shitty for aging whisky!

More importantly, in a market where almost no producer has enough whisky to even meet demand, never mind the ability to take advantage of the additional buzz, it’s absolutely ridiculous to resort to a gimmick play for publicity. Ardbeg Galileo, a release that celebrated the distillery’s space adventure, would have sold just as well under any other name, because all of their special editions sell out immediately and are marked up several times their retail cost after a few years because they’re so sought after.

So now Suntory is also sending whisky into space.  This is a company that produces such good whisky that last year one of its products was considered the Best Whisky in the World. This is a company that owns legendary brands like Jim Beam, Laphroaig, and Maker’s Mark, just to name a few. You guys have better stories to tell than “we sent a small amount of whisky into space and it tasted different because obviously it did.”

Ardbeg says it wants to keep experimenting with microgravity to bring out different flavors. What, why? To release more tasting notes for such a small sample of whisky that no regular person will ever be able to taste it? Those tasting notes were gross, anyway. “Antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke”? Space sounds like an awful place to put whisky. Here’s a better idea: Keep making really good whisky—on Planet Earth!—like you’ve been doing for 200 years, and start selling single barrel releases at cask strength. They’ll all taste different, and people will buy them at any price.

I love outer space as much as the next guy, but sending whisky into space is stupid.

Stop sending your whisky into outer space.

Doesn't Ardbeg look pretty good on Planet Earth? Let's keep it there. (Photo: Gary He)

Doesn't Ardbeg look pretty good on Planet Earth? Let's keep it there. (Photo: Gary He)