Anna Piccoli

From pee to whisky

Aged to the right point

You might have heard of the whisky that was aged in space. Well, it is not the weirdest hard liquor you could get. James Gilpin specialised in the production of a very special whisky, whose main ingredient is the sugar coming from the pee of elderly diabetic patients


Gilpin Family Whisky - James Gilpin created a low-cost whisky using the sugar contained in the urine of (elderly) diabetic patients

People suffering from diabetes excrete a large amount of sugar on a daily basis. You can regard this as a problem or you can actually consider it as a potential resource. James Gilpin, British researcher and designer, chose the second option and started exploring the condition to see how science could help him get something out of the disease. In 2010 the project Family Whisky was started: as a matter of fact, sugar-rich urine could be processed to produce alcohol and Gilpin did it, fermenting high-end single malt whisky, which was ultimately bottled with the name and age of the contributor. Crazy as it sounds, it is a brilliant idea to get low-cost spirit, while at the same time fostering discussion about a health problem that often goes unnoticed.


James Gilpin and his whisky bottles - The young British designer and researcher used science to transform a medical condition into a resource to produce hard liquor and called his project "Gilpin Family Whisky"

As in the case of Julia van Zanten's washable protective underwear, everything began on the basis of personal experience and was carried out with the help of family members – James' grandmother was indeed the first guinea-pig. Thanks to her collaboration, the process was refined and it became easier to recruit other “donators”. Their sugar molecules could be distilled, purified in a clean lab, and finally added to the mash stock to accelerate the process of fermentation. Whisky blends could be then added to give colour, taste and viscosity. According to James, this is not a traditional technique, but is a cheap, commercial one. Moreover, Gilpin's whisky is not aged for years in a barrel to gain flavour. However, it can boast the aftertaste of fully-lived years, those of the donators.


Gilpin Family Whisky - A detail of Gilpin Family Whisky showing the place, name and age of the donator. In the specific case, it was James' grandmother, Patricia Gilpin

Is it cheating? Maybe, but the main aim of the project was not delivering a high-quality, expensive whisky. Rather, it was an educational one: the designer wanted to provoke a dialogue about lifestyle of patients affected by diabetes, especially involving health care professionals. He wanted people to see diabetes as something different from a disease needing constant control.
This really was a message in a bottle. Has it ever gotten to the shore? Certainly it has in the UK, but I am not sure about its reception in other parts of the world: rather than triggering attention for its social content, it has won the label of “gross drink” due to its material content. Time to give it another chance?