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Ardbeg Space Experiment Shows Gravity Makes a Difference in Whisky

September 11, 2015 – Only four people know what “whisky” matured in space actually tastes like, and the rest of us can only look at the stars and wonder. The Glenmorangie Company’s Dr. Bill Lumsden is one of those four, and has now published his findings on four years of research using Ardbeg “new make” spirit samples sent to the International Space Station.

“What we were trying to do was simulate maturation up on the International Space Station, and it was just not practical to actually send barrels up into space…they would have taken up just a little bit too much room,” Lumsden said in a telephone interview. The experiment coordinated by Houston-based NanoRacks LLC used 32 specially-designed vials of Ardbeg spirit along with oak wood shavings from the inside of an ex-Bourbon barrel, which were launched into orbit in late 2011 for delivery to the ISS. Lumden kept a duplicate set of the vials in his office at Glenmorangie’s headquarters in Edinburgh, Scotland, with both sets allowed to “mature” for the same 971-day period before the orbiting samples returned to Earth.

Listen to Mark Gillespie’s interview with Dr. Bill Lumsden:

The Ardbeg Rocket on display at Lincoln Financial Field during the Philadelphia Whiskey & Fine Spirits Festival October 24, 2013. Photo ©2013 by Mark Gillespie.
This was not the rocket used to send Ardbeg’s test samples to the International Space Station.

The overall goal of the experiment was to see whether gravity makes a difference in the extraction of key oak compounds from the wood into whisky as it matures, and Lumden found a significant difference. Chemical analysis showed that volatile congeners such as alcohols, esters, ketones, and aldehydes were present in similar levels in both the ISS and control samples, but Lumsden describes those as compounds easily extracted from wood, along with lignin-derived compounds such as vanillin.

“It’s this second group of compounds, the less easily extractable ones, which have been negatively impacted by micro-gravity,” Lumsden said. Those include so-called “syringal” compounds such as syringic acid and syringaldehyde, and it’s believed that the structure of capillaries within the oak chips may play a role in that difference. Capillaries are similar to blood vessels in mammals, and allow nutrients to move through a tree.

But, as with all whiskies, the final analysis requires human input. “It’s all very well using GC (Gas Chromatograph) and HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography) to measure every compound imaginable…at the end of the day, it’s what is picked up by the consumer on the aroma and the taste is the thing that’s always interested me,” Lumsden said. The control samples kept on Earth nosed and tasted like Ardbeg, according to Lumsden, who described that finding as “unsurprising.” However, the samples from space showed a completely different set of aromas and flavors, including smoked fish, briar wood, cassis, violet, marzipan and sweet tobacco. “All sorts of things are in there…things that we wouldn’t normally find in Ardbeg samples,” Lumsden said.

The next challenge? Figure out how to recreate those flavors in a gravity-rich maturation environment. Lumsden has one intact ISS vial left, along with about 25ml of what he calls “the precious liquid.” He also hopes to persuade NanoRacks and NASA to allow for a follow-up experiment on the ISS in the future.

For the record, the other three tasters are all part of his team at Glenmorangie. Brendan McCarron is Lumsden’s “heir apparent”, while Gillian McDonald heads up analytics and Karen Fullerton is Glenmorangie and Ardbeg’s European brand ambassador. “I wasn’t being mean about it…I didn’t want to stop other people from trying it, there just wasn’t enough of the liquid,” Lumsden said.

Another whisky-related experiment is currently being conducted on the International Space Station. Last month, Suntory sent samples of its mature Japanese single malts into orbit to test the impact of gravity on maturation and flavor development. Lumsden’s reaction? “Been there, done that,” he joked.

Links: Ardbeg | The Impact of Micro-Gravity on the Release of Oak Extractives Into Spirit