The whisky astronauts took into space is back, and it tastes unexpectedly different

Terrestrial wonder or space hazard.
Terrestrial wonder or space hazard.
Image: EPA/Felipe Trueba
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Astronauts and alcohol don’t mix, the American space agency ruled in 1972 (pdf). That, however, hasn’t meant there is no alcohol aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Everything from beer to wine has made its way to way to space, and the Russians have even enjoyed a sip or two of cognac. On the American side, however, the alcohol is strictly for experiments, not consumption.

The results of the most recent space-alcohol experiment are in. Ardbeg’s whisky was sent in to space in 2011 and returned on Earth in 2014. After a year of analysis, chemists and tasters have given their verdict (pdf): although its chemical make-up is not too different, its aroma and taste have “unexpectedly” changed.

Earth sample:

Aroma – Very woody, hints of cedar wood, sweet smoke and aged balsamic vinegar. Hints of raisins, treacle toffee, vanilla and burnt oranges. Very reminiscent of an aged Ardbeg style.

Taste – Dry palate, woody/balsamic flavors, sweet smoke and clove oil. A distant fruitiness (prunes/dates), some charcoal and antiseptic notes. The aftertaste is long, lingering and typically Ardbeg, with flavors of gentle smoke, briar wood, tar and some sweet, creamy fudge.

Space sample:

Aroma – Intense and rounded, with notes of antiseptic smoke, rubber, smoked fish and a curious, perfumed note , like cassis or violet. Powerful woody notes, hints of graphite and some vanilla. This then leads into very earthy/soil notes, a savory, beefy aroma, and then hints of rum & raisin flavored ice cream.

Taste – 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.

Specially designed vials of plastic with oak bits—one in space and one on Earth—could not replicate the 200-liter oak barrel maturation process that’s normal for the whisky. But scientists did all they could to ensure that the only difference between the two samples was the difference in gravity. What they found was that in space the maturation process did not extract as many chemicals from the wood as that on Earth.

Of course, unless they allow others to taste it, we have to take their word. The differences between whiskies is much more noticeable to a normal taste palate than thedifferences between wines, so we might actually be able to tell which was which. Still, I’d be skeptical that the difference between the two samples could be as different as the distillery would like us to believe.

If you are not in to Scotch whisky, you can wait a few more years for a non-Scotch whiskey that was sent to space earlier this year to return. For the expensive gimmick that this is—costing some millions of dollars—I’d expect them to claim the taste of whiskeys to be different too.