This is the first time I’ve heard of something being done in space making it less awesome.
As you’ve probably noticed, I’m super interested in space travel. What you might not know is that I’m also super interested in whisky. So when I heard this week that the whisky that spent three years aboard the ISS has finally been tasted, I got super excited.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t sound like it was very good. (At least that’s how it sounded to me. I haven’t seen anyone actually come out and say that, but if I was standing in a liquor store reading these flavor descriptions, I’d pick the Earth sample.) Which, if you know much about how barrel aging whisky actually works, isn’t very surprising.
The thing that gives whisky its lovely oak and vanilla flavors (my personal favorites) is exposure to the wood of the barrel itself. In fact, if you want to rush the process, agitating the barrels during the time spent aging the whisky can increase the interaction between fluid and container and create the flavor of a 30 year whisky in just 4 years. Fluctuations in temperature also help hasten the aging of a whisky, as the wood of the barrel contracts and expands.
Some modern distilleries have realized this, and figured out an easy way to create both of these conditions in one go: they put them on boats and send them on a little ocean tour before bringing them home again. Sea travel + whisky barrels = better whisky.
Okay, so what’s the next logical step? Send them to space of course!!
In 2011 NASA did just that. (Not for drinking. American astronauts aren’t allowed to drink in space. This whisky is for SCIENCE.) But they couldn’t just load wood barrels onto the space shuttle, so they had to come up with a different solution. They put the whisky in plastic vials with a strip of oak wood in each one. In 2014 they brought the whisky back to earth, and after a year of testing, they finally tasted the results.
And to be honest, the results don’t sound that appealing to me. Which I sort of feel like was actually predictable.
First of all, a little strip of wood in a plastic container isn’t going to replicate the process of being stored in a wooden barrel, so this whisky was pretty much guaranteed to be less good than normal whisky. But the control sample was aged in the same containers, so that’s not why the two samples are different.
Second of all, my gut tells me that a micro-gravity situation would result in less interaction between the fluid and the wood. Do I have any science to back this up? No, not really. I have zero idea how a low gravity environment would actually effect the brownian motion of the whisky, or anything like that. But the way that liquids sort of cling to surfaces and splash around less in space makes me think that overall there would be less surface interaction between the whisky and the wood. I suppose you can’t really tell without trying it, but that would be my first guess.
Thirdly, say one thing about space stations, say they tend to stay at a pretty consistent temperature. Not that temperature fluctuations in a strip of wood would have as much effect as fluctuations in a whole barrel, but even that little bit of effect is going to be out of the picture on the space station. Although to be fair, I don’t know where they stored the samples on Earth, so this factor might not account for any of the difference between the two samples, even if it does account for both of them being less tasty then they could have been.
So it’s not surprising to me that this whisky might not be the best whisky ever created. And it’s not surprising to me that the whisky that went to space sounds less appealing even then the control sample stored in the same containers on earth. Disappointing, yes, but not surprising.
If given a chance, would I try the space whisky? Of course! In a second! Am I glad that they tried this experiment? Heck yeah! We couldn’t really know until we tried, right? Am I going to run out and spend thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands of dollars, on whisky that’s been to space? No. No I’m not. And not just because I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars either.
…well, okay, it’s mostly because I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars. What can I say, if I were super rich this sounds like exactly the sort of thing I’d waste my money on.