Scottish isle’s whisky really takes off

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station must have been delighted to get a special delivery from a Scottish whisky company. But any dreams of “one small nip for man” soon evaporated when they opened the package from the Ardbeg Distillery.

Ardbeg whisky expert Dr Bill Lumsden in his laboratory. Credit: Glenmorangie
Ardbeg whisky expert Dr Bill Lumsden in his laboratory. Credit: Glenmorangie

Instead of a case of single malt, the Russian rocket brought them a tiny supply of malt molecules with fragments of charred oak from the barrels in which whisky matures. Test tubes of the microscopic particles were delivered by a Progress 45 cargo ship in early November for an experiment to help scientists discover how the compounds react in a weightless environment and produce new flavours.

The organic molecules were crafted by whisky experts at the distillery on the island of Islay which is owned by the Glenmorangie company. The vials were filled with a set of chemicals called “terpenes” which help produce a whisky’s aroma. Scientists want to see how the chemicals matured with the oak in space over two years while similar tests are carried out back on Earth at Houston, Texas, and at a warehouse at the distillery itself.

By comparing the results they hope to discover how the molecules work together. The out-of-this-world experiment, led by US-based space research company NanoRacks LLC, was revealed at the International Science Festival in Edinburgh today.

Michael Johnson, Chief Technical Officer of NanoRacks LLC, said: “By doing this microgravity experiment on the interaction of terpenes and other molecules with the wood samples provided by Ardbeg we will learn much about flavours, even extending to applications like food and perfume. At the same time it should help Ardbeg find new chemical building blocks in their own flavour spectrum.”

Dr Bill Lumsden, Head of Distilling and Whisky Creation at Ardbeg, said: “This experiment will throw new light on the effect of gravity on the maturation process. We are all tremendously excited by this experiment. Who knows where it will lead?”

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By Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland has been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. He writes regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy, plus he has authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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