Whisky makers get very invested in the particulars of the ageing process, labouring over all the little details involved in maturation and how each small element contributes to the distinctive mellow flavour of the end result. But Suntory’s pursuit of the optimum ageing process is about to take things to a whole other level.
The Japanese distillery announced this week that it will be launching samples of its alcohol into space in order to conduct experiments on the "development of mellowness in alcoholic beverage through the use of a microgravity environment”.
The research, being organised by Suntory’s Global Innovation Centre, will see the company send six different samples of its spirits into orbit with the cooperation of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). Launching from JAXA’s Tanegashima Space Centre later in the month, the beverage payload will be conveyed to the Kibo module of the International Space Station (ISS), where scientists will begin research into just how mellow space really tastes.
The Suntory batch will be divided into two groups, with Group 1 samples being aged for 1 year and Group 2 samples for 2 or more years, with the exact length of ageing for the longer batch as yet undecided (although we suppose if the crew onboard the ISS get a hankering for a poker night that may put a sudden halt to Group 2’s ageing window). Control batches will be stored in Japan during the experiment period, and testers will analyse and compare the two sets at the conclusion of the ageing process.
Suntory is conducting the research to help it refine its scientific understanding of the molecular mechanism “that makes alcohol mellow”. According to a statement to the press, prior research by the company has suggested ”the probability that mellowness develops by promoted formation of the high-dimensional molecular structure in the alcoholic beverage in environments where liquid convection is suppressed”. Taking these findings further, the space maturation experiments are looking "to verify the effect of the convection-free state created by a microgravity environment to the mellowing of alcoholic beverage”.
How they’ll determine the results of the experiment won’t be anything as simple as an old-fashioned taste test, either (although that will also take place). Suntory intends to measure the samples’ substance diffusion and analyse the drinks’ high-dimensional structure by X-ray to see what effect the convection-free state has on the liquor. All in the name of taste!
As crazy as it sounds, this isn’t even the first time scientists have struck upon the idea of sending whisky into space to see how it alters the flavour. A team of US researchers conducted a similar experiment between 2011 and 2014, launching a sample of Ardberg Scotch Whisky into orbit for more than 1,000 days, with a spokesperson for the company commenting: “This is one small step for man but one giant leap for whisky.” That research has not yet been published.