Q: What's the only thing better than whiskey? A: Space whiskey.
Appropriately enough for Space City, Houston has just acquired what some people are calling "Space Whiskey". Officially, it's an experimental Ardbeg distillation that's just returned to Earth after three years in space. At its premiere to the media last week at Reserve 101, 1201 Caroline Street, Gregor Mina, the Ardbeg representative present, told us more about the project.
Ardbeg collaborated with NASA and a space research company called NanoWorks. He distilled a recipe specifically for this process, then separated it into vials suitable for space travel, sending half into space and keeping the other half in the Ardbeg warehouse as a control sample. (Technically, the spirit isn't allowed to be labeled "whiskey": By aging with wood chips, it does not meet the specific legal requirement of being aged in a barrel for at least three years. But for all intents and purposes, it is.)
Those 20 vials spent three years orbiting Earth on the International Space Station, and in September the rocket that carried them away from there back to Earth touched down. Nineteen of those vials are back at Ardbeg headquarters. The other one is on tour, part of a display attraction stopping at three different locations. After appearing at Reserve 101 this weekend-- making it the only bar in America to host the display-- it currently resides at Spec's Downtown, 2410 Smith Street, (713-526-8787), where it will remain through the end of the month. The samples of the space-aged whiskey and the control whiskey will be laboratory-tested to determine what differences, if any, are caused by aging in a microgravity enviroment, orbiting the Earth at over 17,000 miles an hour.
Does Mina have any hope for the findings one way or the other? "I hope there is a difference, because then we'd have to open a distillery in space," he quipped.
Sadly, the Ardbeg "Space Whiskey" is not for sale yet-- with an extremely small quantity produced, it won't be going on sale commercially, and not at all until the company is finished with its test. At the end of next year, Ardbeg plans to auction the whiskey. Start saving now: the small vial is expected to break the per-mL record for most expensive whiskey ever sold.
As you might imagine from all this information, I didn't get to try it. I did get to sample the Ardbeg 10, the company's flagship whiskey, and the Supernova 2014, released to commemorate the return of the space-aged whiskey.
The 10-year had a surprising hint of sweetness to it-- Ardbeg is sweeter than most Scotch, in a way reminiscent of Irish whiskey; this sweetness primarily showed up on the end. The nose was very peaty, with the distinct medicinal smokiness of iodine. The actual mouthfeel was soft and chewy, filling the palate without becoming overwhelming or unpleasant.
Mina also taught us a trick I hadn't heard before: Drop a few droplets of Ardbeg on your palm, then rub your hands together until the liquid is gone. Take a whiff-- you'll notice some savory flavors, reminiscent of cured meat (Mina described it as Parma ham).
The Supernova carried a bit more complexity and flavor. It's aged in a combination of American whiskey barrels and used sherry barrels from Spain (the 10-year is aged exclusively in American oak). Mina told us Ardbeg used a different smoking process for the whiskey, and it results in a much stronger flavor: Whereas the ten-year contains 55 parts per million of "smokiness" (the esters and tannins that give the whiskey its flavor), already a high number, the Supernova carries 125 PPM.
It's also bottled at cask strength (between 55-59 percent ABV; I've seen conflicting numbers), giving drinkers the chance to choose their own preferred potency. It's drinkable at cask strength-- strong, but with some savory flavors. The nose has hints of red meat, and the mouthfeel has some barbecue flavors and hints of dark fruit. With a bit of water added, the sweeter fruit flavors are brought more to the surface-- I noticed strawberries on a second sampling.
Both Ardbeg whiskeys are non-chill filtered; Mina demonstrated this by showing us the "legs" of the spirit in the glass; the resulting flavor shows it as well.
You can see the display at Spec's Downtown through the end of the month (and buy a bottle of Ardbeg if you wish). Reserve 101 has a number of Ardbeg whiskeys in stock, including some that are no longer in production, so if you're interested in a sampling or flight of Ardbeg's offerings, that's the place to be.