Space. The final front ear. Home of paranoid robots named HAL, space stations that ain’t no moons, cats and David Bowie. Recently whisky has also been crowbarred into this list with alarming regularity. So much so, that I thought it was time to take another look at it all.
You see, having inexplicably found myself in Disneyland Paris for a few days back in August, during which time I naturally took up residence on Space Mountain, I now quite reasonably consider myself to be the office expert when it comes to all things space.
Space whisky, eh? Many of you will immediately think of Ardbeg and the fact that they sent samples of new make spirit along with oak sticks (MixStix) from the inside of a charred American oak ex-bourbon barrel into space. Well the samples have now returned safely three years later, having spent two and a half years in microgravity, and the results have been published in Bill Lumsden’s White Paper. They’re not the only ones at it though, in fact there seems to be something of a whisky space race going on – perhaps even a spirits space race!? (We saw an actual bottle of vodka sent up into the upper atmosphere a little while back, but as Just Drinks pointed out at the time, that particular stunt has even been done with a slice of pizza.) As Stoli* was supposedly the first vodka in space back in 1975, and there was Cognac aboard the Mir space station, it does rather seem that everyone is a bit late to the party…
Enjoying some much needed ‘medicinal’ Cognac on the Mir Space Station after a dangerous fire was dealt with back in 1997.
Timing is a wonderful thing though. Back in 2009 when Ardbeg first released their ‘out of this world’ super-peated limited edition Supernova they surely had no idea they’d end up sending anything into space. After the Advance Committee Release sold out in record time and the subsequent ‘Stellar Release‘ was named Scotch Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s 2010 Whisky Bible, however, it was inevitable that we hadn’t seen the end of the Supernova story.
Cue a 2010 second release, but where next for an ‘out of this world’ whisky? Well, out of this world, obviously, and the opportunity arrived in the form of American company NanoRacks who were newly able to arrange for things (experiments/”your payload”) to be taken aboard the International Space Station (the laboratory was only completed about 5 years ago). In 2011, however, you have to remember that NASA were ending their space shuttle programme and it had been 16 long years since Tom Hanks had starred as an astronaut in Apollo 13. A film from different century, a different time. Levels of optimism about space travel were probably at the lowest they’d been since the idea of space travel being a technological possibility was first ever conceived. Since Ardbeg announced their space mission in 2012, though, Prometheus, Gravity, Interstellar and The Martian have been some of the biggest movies in Hollywood. Matt Damon has been twice (and been abandoned twice – perhaps he makes ‘innocent’ comments in microgravity too). Then there’s the small matter of Star Wars VII. ‘Space’ has become very much in vogue once again and Ardbeg have been firmly in control of the ‘space whisky’ marketing territory throughout. Intentional or not, that is timing, and they’ve made the most of it.
Bill Lumsden back in 2012
Almost as soon as the news that Ardbeg was sending samples into space broke, a special release was lined up in the shape of Ardbeg Galileo – a vintage release from a distillery that had moved toward NAS releases long before the current trend. Not just any vintage either, this was (Space) 1999 whisky! A delicious bit of marketing, but importantly a delicious whisky too, being named the World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards 2013. The following year the 2014 Supernova Committee Release had a neck tag that read “Earth to Ardbeg…” (in case anyone had forgotten they were in space) whilst the final release this year was able to boast “Space: The Conclusion”.
“The first distillery in space…
reveals the findings of the first spirit experiment in space…”
This year we’ve seen some pretenders to the ‘space whisky’ throne, for example Ballantine’s blended Scotch whisky (coincidently another that’s highly rated by Jim Murray) posed this troubling question: “If humans live in space in the future, how will they manage to drink whisky without it floating off?”. It’s not something the Mir astronauts/cosmonauts seemed to worry about, but near weightlessness does bring practical issues as anyone who’s seen an astronaut washing their hair will appreciate. You don’t want your whisky getting away from you (and potentially into vital equipment), do you?
Introducing the Ballantine’s Space Glass
The solution, apparently, is a sippy cup with a curly straw inside. Of course everything in space already comes with straws, from water to no-rinse shampoo (back to astronauts washing their hair). In fact, why limit yourself to one straw and one whisy – you could have a whole space whisky tasting in a box! (I mean, as long as you don’t want to actually nose the stuff.)
We’ll all be drinking whisky like this by 2001.
As mentioned, space is very ‘in’ at the moment – you could easily ask why on earth wouldn’t Ballantine’s make a space glass? They’re big players too, the second best selling Scotch whisky in the world. If somebody really wants to challenge Ardbeg in the space race though, they’re obviously going to have to go to space themselves and perhaps even perform their own microgravity experiments. Enter Suntory, a huge player (Beam Suntory being the third biggest drinks company in the world), who are doing just that.
Japanese HTV-5 cargo ship carrying the Suntory samples
In association with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, Suntory plan to build on existing research into the ‘mellowness’ of Japanese whisky by sending 21 year old whisky and new make spirit to the Intentional Space Station. They call it “Elucidating the Mechanism Mellowing Alcoholic Beverage”, a title at least as pleasingly scientific as Ardbeg’s “The Impact Of Micro-Gravity On The Release Of Oak Extactives Into Spirit”. Whilst Ardbeg used gas chromatography, high performance liquid chromatography and gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (plus good old fashioned nosing and tasting), Suntory promise to measure substance diffusion coefficient using a phase shifting interferometer, detect high-dimensional structure with small angle x-ray scattering and substance diffusion using NMR method 3 (plus good old fashioned nosing and tasting).
As Charles MacLean asks though, “So what?”. Can any of it be used? Is there more to all this than marketing? One thing’s for sure, it will lead to further expressions, and whilst none of us are likely to taste space matured whisky any time soon (or even in our lifetimes) we can expect a couple of Ardbegs on the horizon based on what Bill Lumsden feels space matured whisky may taste like, as opposed to simply space themed bottlings. In other words, an Ardbeg with less wood extractives than usual.
We’ve saved our favourite peice of ‘space whisky’ PR until last, however. Douglas Laing is sending its Managing Director, Fred Laing into space! Yep, they hope that due to the different ageing conditions in space Fred will be able to “retain (his) youthful looks for another 64 years”.
“One small step for man, one giant leap for Laing-kind.”
Full marks chaps.
* More recently, they decided to go up in a reduced gravity aircraft to make cocktails.