Most of the time, science makes me smile. Every now and then, science makes me grin like a drunk schoolboy. This is one of those times.
Ardbeg Distillery, a Scotch whisky distillery on the isle of Islay in Scotland, is currently in the process of testing something amazing. They wanted to know how gravity affects the maturation of Scotch. In the first experiment of its kind, Ardbeg sent some vials filled with compounds into space, hoping to learn how that environment would affect their interaction with the oak wood necessary to form Scotch Whisky:
This is the most audacious adventure ever undertaken by Ardbeg Distillery (or any other distillery for that matter). Ardbeg have been invited by US based space research company NanoRacks LLC to take part in an experiment to test these micro organic compounds in a maturation experiment (the inter-action of these compounds with charred oak) between normal gravity on Earth and micro-gravity, far up in space on the International Space Station. The vials contain a class of compounds known as “terpenes” – a set of chemicals which are very widespread in nature and often very aromatic and flavour-active – as well as other molecules. It is the interaction of these molecules with oak wood that forms the basis of this maturation experiment.
The experiment began in the Fall of 2011, and from there will last at least two years.
The NanoRacks company that Ardbeg mentioned is scientific facilitator, giving folks who want to perform space research access to the International Space Station.
Dr. Bill Lumsden, head of distilling at Ardberg told the BBC, “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?”
Although Scotch whisky is at the root of this experiment, there are other industries that could benefit from the research. Learning how these “terpenes” interact with the wood at zero-gravity could aid any sort of industry involving flavors, like “food or perfume” industries, according to NanoRacks CTO Michael Johnson.
Using space experiments to possibly make a better Scotch? Now that’s something we should all be able to get behind.