GIN, IN SPACE!
How hard would extra-terrestrial distilling be?
As I write this, I am 30,000 feet in the air on my first transatlantic trip of the year and, in the name of research, I have a drink in hand: a Red Snapper. Both the Red Snapper and its vodka equivalent – the Bloody Mary – are in-air favourites for many a seasoned traveller. This is to do with the effect that airplane travel has on our senses. There are three ways that flying impacts our senses of taste and smell: air pressure, lower humidity, and noise.
In general, our sense of taste is lessened when in flight, and our abilities to detect sugar and salt are affected the most. This is why airline food tends to be more heavily seasoned, and also why the combination of gin (or vodka) with tomato juice and a liberal dose of Lea & Perrins is such a popular sky-high drink.
Gin itself is not immune to this confusion of the senses: brands that taste a certain way at sea level can taste very different on a plane. One well-known brand, when tasted in the air, is uncharacteristically dominated by earthy, floral orris root, reminiscent of talcum powder; another is overwhelmed by peppery cubeb notes. This is unusual, because both these gins are complex and balanced when drunk with your feet firmly on the ground.
I’ve done some research on which gins work particularly well when flying and have found that slightly sweeter ones, with a high ABV and strong spice or citrus notes, work better than others. The likes of Gordon’s (at 47.3% ABV), Tanqueray, and No. 209 all work particularly well. A powerful botanical character is also preferable, which makes me wonder why more Old Toms are not served on airlines – they would work a treat.
But what if we cast our sights higher, beyond flying in a jet airliner and into outer space? After all, unlike geographically protected spirits such as Cognac, Scotch whisky and Tequila, gin can be made anywhere on Earth, so why not off of it? This does beg the question: who will be the first to produce an extraterrestrial gin, and where will it be made? Moonshot Gin has sent botanicals into near-Earth orbit, but the marrying of juniper and spirit (otherwise known as distillation) still takes place on terra firma. Ardbeg Distillery has experimented with the maturation of spirit in space with significant response (but no current commercial application). Meanwhile, NASA has tried “vapour compression distillation”, primarily designed to recycle human wastewater into drinking water, with a potential 97 per cent efficiency.
One of the challenges of distilling in space is that the boiling process relies on gravitydependent buoyancy and convection not present in low-gravity environments. Interestingly, air pressure is not an issue, as both the International Space Station and any conceivable base on the moon or Mars would be pressurised to about the equivalent of Earth’s sea level.
Perhaps, instead of distillation, a maceration of juniper in spirit (so-called cold compounded gin) would work? This may be the simplest solution, and it wouldn’t require sharing your gin still with the process of turning wee into drinking water. However, the current cost and weight restrictions of sending something into orbit at all may make such plans extremely difficult (even for a SpaceX Falcon 9, it costs US$2,720 per kilo to carry material to space). Such prices for gin may sound ridiculous, but with some gins currently selling for more than US$4,500 a bottle, someone could probably make it work (I just hope they’ll send me a small sample!). That said, the use of any spacecraft payload allowance to make booze may be frowned upon.
After all... gin can be made anywhere on Earth, so why not off of it?
If someone did want to enjoy an orbital gin drink, perhaps the best way to do it would be to use one of the new breed of highflavoured gins, such as Hayman’s Small Gin, Cotswolds Gin Essence, or Atom Brands’ Peter Rose Gin Concentrate. All of these would save space and weight, as well as making a less boozy drink – what with being weightless and orbiting the Earth at approximately 18,000 miles per hour, the last thing you need is to be hungover!