Ardbeg's pioneering space experiment reveals a new taste dimension

A small quantity of Ardbeg spirit that was fired into space almost four years ago as part of an experiment has returned to earth with enhanced flavour and character, according to its creator.

Published 7th Sep 2015
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

The vial of unmatured malt from the Ardbeg Distillery on Islay was sent to the International Space Station in a cargo spacecraft in October 2011, along with particles of charred oak.

Vials of the same whisky and charcoal were also kept at the distillery for comparison.

It returned to earth last year and a series of tests by the Ardbeg team has found that the space samples were “noticeably different” to those kept on earth.

Ardbeg believe it could have “significant implications for the whisky industry” as it paves the way for unprecedented new flavours.

"Our findings may also one day have significant implications for the whisky industry as a whole."

The experiment was designed to investigate how micro-gravity would affect the behaviour of terpenes, compounds that give flavour to many foods, wines and spirits.

Dr Bill Lumsden, Ardbeg’s director of distilling, said: “The space samples were noticeably different.

“When I nosed and tasted the space samples, it became clear that much more of Ardbeg’s smoky, phenolic character shone through – to reveal a different set of smoky flavours which I have not encountered here on earth before.

“Ardbeg already has a complex character, but the results of our experiment show that there is potentially even more complexity that we can uncover, to reveal a different side to the whisky.”

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He added: “Our findings may also one day have significant implications for the whisky industry as a whole.

“In the future, the altered range of wood extractions could lead scientists to be able to detail the ratios of compounds expected in whiskies of a certain age.”

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Ardbeg was invited to take part in the space experiment by US space research company NanoRacks, who praised the distillery for being “pioneers”.

The experiment began in 2011, when vials containing Ardbeg’s new spirit distillate and shards of Ardbeg casks were sent to the US National Lab on the International Space Station some 200 miles above Earth. The vials orbited the planet at 17,227mph for almost three years.

At a predetermined time in January 2012, the experiment went live, when the scientists on board the International Space Station – and on Earth – broke a separating wall between the two components in the vials. This allowed the Ardbeg spirit to mix with the oak shards – and maturation to begin.

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Ardbeg Supernova. Picture: Ardbeg

Ardbeg Supernova. Picture: Ardbeg

By September 2014, the vials had completed their journey and were sent back to Earth, where scientists in Kazakhstan were waiting to receive them.

Jeffrey Manber, CEO of NanoRacks, said: “It’s hard to find companies willing to be pioneers. To have a partner like Ardbeg that is willing to make this sort of commitment augurs well for the future of commercial space research into flavourings.”

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