The Shackleton whisky

Shackleton's hut at Cape Royds on a fine Antarctic day

I love this story. I’ve been following it for months on that excellent blog, thewhiskyexchange.com, the source of these handsome pictures. It all began in January 2006, when some archaeologists from The New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust checked the ice beneath the hut abandoned by English explorer Ernest Shackleton during his historic 1907-1909 quest to reach the South Pole and found four wooden cases of booze. Two were marked as containing an Australian brandy; the other two were splendidly emblazoned with the logo of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky. Here was a treasure trove indeed! Scotch over 100 years old – with an heroic pedigree to boot. Most people’s reaction would obviously have been “Quick! Drink it!” but the New Zealand scientists showed admirable respect and patience. A more exacting analysis was required…

But first, the back story. Every schoolboy knows of the exploits of Shackleton, gallant hero. His attempt on the Pole predated Amundsen and Scott by several years. He and his team set up camp on Cape Royds, Antarctica, building a wooden hut to serve as HQ before setting off for the Pole. They got to within 100 miles of their goal before Shackleton made the decision to turn back, saving his men’s lives (no one died) but leaving the ultimate prize for Amundsen. The men made it back to their hut but found that sea ice was forming so quickly they had to make a very fast exit. They left many artifacts and supplies behind, including the whisky, buried under the floorboards, entombed in ice.

Inside the hut

Mackinlay’s? That’s Chas Mackinlay & Co, to give the brand its full name, a blended Scotch that ended up as part of Invergordon Distillers, which in turn was purchased by Whyte & Mackay in 1995. They did next to nothing with the brand and it would probably have faded into oblivion if it weren’t for Shackleton. Whyte & Mackay’s billionaire owner, Vijay Mallya, was presented with a completely unexpected public-relations plum when the story broke. The New Zealand team were carefully thawing out a case of the 100-year-old Scotch in their lab. Mallya, most respectfully and carefully, sent his private jet to bring three bottles back to Scotland for analysis.

What did it taste like? Whisky expert David Broom was the lucky noser who was invited to describe it. “The Shackleton whisky is not what I expected at all,” he reported, “and not what anyone would have expected. It’s so light, so fresh, so delicate and still in one piece – it’s a gorgeous whisky. It proves that even way back then so much care, attention and thought went into whisky-making.”

Whyte and Mackay’s master blender, Richard Paterson, was then invited to analyse and replicate the whisky, a task that took him six weeks. “It was a real privilege getting to handle, nose and taste such a rare and beautiful bottle of whisky,” he writes. “The quality, purity and taste of this 100-year-old spirit was amazing. The biggest surprise was the light flavour and the clear, almost vibrant colour of the liquid. I hope I have done our forefathers and Ernest Shackleton proud with the replica.”

David Broom believes he has. “I think the replication is absolutely bang on,” he declares. “Richard has done a great job as it’s a very tricky whisky to replicate, because you have this delicacy, subtlety and the smoke just coming through. The sweetness, fragrance and spice, and the subtle smoke, are all there in the replica. I’m blown away.”

Paterson worked with a range of highland malts, including Glen Mhor, which was a principal component of Mackinlay’s before the distillery closed in 1983. The original whisky was bottled at 47.3%, possibly to prevent the spirit freezing in Antarctic temperatures, so Paterson copied that too. Official tasting notes conclude that the replica “has a light honey and straw gold colour with shimmering highlights. The nose is soft, elegant and refined with delicate aromas of crushed apple, pear and fresh pineapple. It has a whisper of marmalade, cinnamon and a tease of smoke, ginger and muscovado sugar. The generous strength of the 47.3% whisky gives plenty of impact, but in a mild and warming way. It has whispers of gentle bonfire smoke slowly giving way to spicy rich toffee, treacle and pecan nuts.”

Fifty thousand bottles of the replica have been made. Each one will cost £100, with 5% from every sale being donated back to the Antarctic Heritage Trust, the New Zealand charity responsible for finding and uncovering the original whisky. If all 50,000 bottles are sold the Trust will receive £250,000.

Meanwhile, the three bottles have been flown back to New Zealand, and when all is said and done they will be returned to their case and buried again in the ice beneath Shackleton’s hut. Who knows whether Mackinlay’s will also be re-interred after this charming revival? We shall see.

One of the cases, disinterred from the ice

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