Space whisky returns to Earth! Here are the taste test results

In 2011, samples of scotch whisky were sent to mature aboard the International Space Station. Now they're back and sporting a different flavor than their terrestrially mellowed counterparts.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
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Eric Mack
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It's baaack... Ardbeg

Four years ago, vials of Ardbeg whisky hitched a ride to the International Space Station. Space research company NanoRacks wanted to learn how time spent in microgravity affects the maturation process of that sweet, smoky scotch. Now those vials are back on Earth, where experts have sampled the results and rendered a verdict.

This wasn't just some fun marketing lark -- "Hey, let's throw some scotch up in space, chug it when it gets back and throw up some YouTube videos; everyone wins!" No, this was some real space-scotch science.

The whisky samples have actually been back for several months after having orbited our planet more than 15,000 times in their adolescent journey to mature spirit. During that time, they've undergone thorough analysis including gas and liquid chromatography, not to mention taste tests against a normal control sample matured under the pull of Earth gravity circa Scotland.

"I was quite astonished at how different the samples were," Bill Lumsden, Ardbeg's director of distilling, says in the below video sharing the results. "It was a whole new range of samples, some flavors I haven't encountered before."

Lumsden has published a detailed white paper (PDF) on the whole experiment and it basically comes down to how microgravity affects the way the whisky pulls its flavor from oak barrel wood (barrel shavings were used to simulate the maturation process that normally happens in full barrels on Earth) -- near zero gravity seems to inhibit this extraction process. Perhaps a better explanation is that gravity may be what enables the process.

Normally, Ardbeg is known for a dry, woody, smoky flavor with a hint of fruitiness like prunes and dates, as Lumsden describes it. But in the white paper, he describes the flavor of the space-matured sample as:

"A very focused flavor profile, with smoked fruits (prunes, raisins, sugared plums and cherries), earthy peat smoke, peppermint, aniseed, cinnamon and smoked bacon or hickory-smoked ham. The aftertaste is pungent, intense and long, with hints of wood, antiseptic lozenges and rubbery smoke."

Sounds delicious enough to suck up with a floating Martian spoon.

Texas-based NanoRacks is like a courier service for low-Earth orbit, shuttling supplies into space for all sorts of experiments. Ardbeg plans to use some of what it's learned from the whisky trial in future products and is considering sending more samples to space in the future to gather additional data and continue the analysis.

The distiller could soon have some competition in the nascent global space whisky race, however. Japan's Suntory whisky is currently winging its way above Earth on the space station as part of a similar experiment.

Spectacular ISS shots of cities at night (pictures)

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