April 11, 2012 at 11:59 PM ET
Is Scotch whisky flowing on the International Space Station? Not exactly ... but an experiment in the chemistry of whisky maturation could eventually lead to exotic drinks that take advantage of aging in zero gravity.
Ardbeg Distillery, headquartered on the Scottish island of Islay, announced this week that it sent up vials containing unmatured malt ingredients as well as particles of charred oak to the space station, on an unmanned cargo flight that blasted off from Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last October. The experiment was facilitated by Houston-based NanoRacks, a company that arranges to send experiments (and the occasional iPhone) to the station for a fee.
The vials will sit on the space station for at least two years. The astronauts on board won't have to do anything with them. They'll be brought down on a future homeward flight, to be chemically compared with control samples at NanoRacks' facility as well as at Ardbeg's Islay distillery.
Ardbeg's researchers want to find out whether the zero-G environment has an effect on terpenes, chemicals that play a role in giving whisky and other spirits their flavor and aroma. "This is believed to be the first time anyone has ever studied terpenes and other molecules in near zero-gravity," the distillery said in a statement.
"This experiment will throw new light on the effect of gravity on maturation," Bill Lumsden, head of distilling and whisky creation at Ardbeg, was quoted as saying in a variety of British news reports originating from the Edinburgh International Science Festival. “We are all tremendously excited — who knows where it will lead?”
It's not certain whether the stuff will be drinkable when it comes back from orbit. In order for it to be considered Scotch whisky, it has to age for at least three years. And in any case, there's not much of it to drink: The liquid is contained in four of NanoRacks' MixStix vials, with each vial containing no more than 1.29 milliliters. That adds up to a little more than 5 milliliters, or roughly an eighth of a shot.
"This is not a taste-testing exercise," Jeffrey Manber, NanoRacks' managing director, told me today. He said it's not certain whether Ardbeg's experiment will lead directly to a new type of space spirit. Instead, it's focusing more generally on the molecular chemistry behind taste and smell, specifically as it applies to terpenes.
"It might lead to new insights into how these molecules behave in zero gravity," Manber said. "It could have applications in beverages — beer, whisky — and it could have applications in perfumes, in cosmetics. In short, this is really good commercial space research."
Manber said Ardbeg paid NanoRacks less than $100,000 to facilitate the experiment, and the hubbub over space whisky has sparked more inquiries about consumer product research in orbit. He pointed out that this isn't the first time space research has resulted in spin-offs for the beverage industry, product-wise as well as publicity-wise. In 2008, for example, Japan's Sapporo brewing company experimented with a "space beer" that was made using a strain of barley studied on the International Space Station.
Although Russian cosmonauts have been known to take a nip of cognac ever so often, NASA has a strict ban against alcohol use on the space station, so I wouldn't expect the astronauts to set up stills in orbit anytime soon. But if it turns out that spending time in zero-G makes spirits taste different, there could be an intoxicating new space spin-off just waiting in the wings.
"Maybe because of what we're doing today, someday SpaceX will have entire launch vehicles filled with kegs, going into orbit," Manber joked. Or maybe "Star Trek" fiction will become fact sooner than we think:
More about alcohol in space:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with theCosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.