The case of Shackleton's Whisky

Emily Stone looks at the exciting Antarctic find that has the whisky world buzzing
By Emily Stone
Antarctica is not a place to go to ill-prepared. Sir Ernest Shackleton knew this better than anyone. So he carefully planned the provisions for his 1907-09 expedition to reach the South Pole, knowing he’d be living 13 months on the inhospitable continent.

Most of that time was spent at his base camp on a spit of black volcanic rock called Cape Royds. The crew constructed a wooden hut there, with the smouldering Mount Erebus volcano in the background and a colony of Adelie penguins as their only neighbours.

Given the arduous nature of the trip, it’s no surprise that Shackleton, a consummate planner, brought 25 cases of 10 Years Old blended Scotch whisky on the expedition. What is surprising is that after his failed attempt at the Pole, he left three of those cases behind. A team of New Zealand conservators discovered two of the wooden Charles Mackinlay & Co. crates four years ago underneath the hut when they cleared out a century’s worth of ice that had accumulated there. The crates were frozen to the porous rock and couldn’t be removed safely at the time. They returned in February and were surprised to find three crates of whisky along with one Mackinlay crate of brandy and another brandy crate labeled Hunter Valley Distillery Limited Allandale.

The condition of the whisky as well as its ultimate fate is unknown. The fragile crates haven’t been opened yet, but conservators said they could hear the sound of sloshing liquid sloshing inside. A member of the New Zealand crew peeked inside one of the crates that’s missing a board and saw an intact bottle of whisky with its cork firmly in place.

The prospect of retrieving even just a few bottles is thrilling to Richard Paterson, master blender at Glasgow-based Whyte & Mackay, which now owns the Mackinlay brand. He’s eager to learn what the blends of that day tasted like. But an international treaty governs all historic artefacts found in Antarctica and stipulates that they remain on the continent unless they need to be removed for conservation reasons.

“It’s been lying there lonely and neglected,” Paterson says. “Can it not come back to Scotland where it was born?”
Nigel Watson, executive director of Antarctic Heritage Trust, which oversees the hut’s restoration, said, “It’s not beyond the realms of possibility” that Paterson would get some of the whisky.”

But the New Zealand-based organisation isn’t rushing to a decision and is focusing first on how best to preserve the crates, bottles and liquid.

The Mackinlay company donated the whisky, which cost 28 shillings a case, Paterson says. This was a common arrangement at the time, allowing expeditions that were run on tight budgets to save money and giving manufacturers free advertising. Charles Mackinlay was one of the first and best regarded blenders in Scotland, and his company would have given Shackleton a batch it was particularly proud of. Paterson says it’s not clear if the bottles were a malt blend or blended whisky, which is one of the things he’s hoping to learn if he can obtain a sample. Regardless, he would expect the whisky to be heavier and smokier than today’s blends.

The trip was the second of Shackleton’s four Antarctic expeditions. He is perhaps best known and loved for being the Polar explorer who made exactly the right decisions in the worst circumstances. After setting out from Cape Royds, he turned around 97 miles short of his destination, telling his wife, “I thought you’d rather have a live donkey than a dead lion.” His most memorable trip was his 1914 attempt to cross Antarctica. He never reached the continent. Instead, he kept all 28 members of his crew alive during 15 harrowing months after their ship got marooned in and then slowly devoured by ice.

Packing large stores of spirits would have been expected on these types of long voyages, says whisky author Helen Arthur. (Indeed, Mackinlay records from 1907 show that the company supplied 12 cases of brandy and six of port, in addition to the whisky.) Many people at the time believed alcohol could cure all sorts of minor illnesses, including seasickness, Arthur says. And Shackleton’s crew, which was relatively wealthy, would have likely preferred whisky to rum, the drink of choice for working class sailors.

Whether the bottles ever leave the continent will be up to the New Zealand government, which has jurisdiction over the artifacts at Cape Royds because the conservation work is being managed from New Zealand, explains Al Fastier, program manager with Antarctic Heritage Trust in Christchurch. He was there the day the crates were discovered and went back this February to retrieve them.

The hut is maintained as a museum and looks much the way it did when Shackleton and his crew left, with cans of boiled mutton and sheep’s tongue lining the shelves and reindeer sleeping bags on the beds. If the whisky remains there, it will join 5,000 other items, which are viewed by the roughly 900 yearly tourists who shell out thousands of pounds on Antarctic cruises and enthusiasts at home who can tour the hut online.

If the whisky is sampled, how it would taste largely depends on how the corks fared during a century of freezing and thawing. Temperatures at Cape Royds have dropped to negative 50 Celsius in the winter and regularly rise above freezing in the summer.

“Whisky freezes at negative 25 Celsius, though the bottles’ entombment in the ice beneath the hut would have shielded it some from the extremes. If the corks stayed in place, the whisky’s flavour likely remains much the same as when it was bottled,” explains David Williamson, a spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association.

Paterson certainly hopes so. International treaties notwithstanding, he’d like to receive four bottles. One would go in the company archives, one to the Mackinlay heirs, and one would be auctioned off, with some of the proceeds going to Antarctic Heritage Trust. Paterson would then analyse the fourth bottle to learn what a 100-plus Years Old Mackinlay blend tasted like. The company’s recipes from that era are long gone.

“Nosing and tasting it would give me at least 80 per cent of what I need to know,” says Paterson.

Then he’d run a sample through a series of tests to determine how it compares to today’s formulations.

If he gets a sample, Paterson says the company would consider issuing recreations of the Shackleton whisky.

“If anyone can produce a good replica it will be Richard, and we would all love to see it” says whisky expert Charles MacLean.

A 100 year old bottle of whisky isn’t a rarity in and of itself. Perhaps three or four bottles go up for auction a year, MacLean says. He didn’t know of any Mackinlays of that age that have been sold. Discovering the flavours of that blend would be of interest to many connoisseurs, he says.

Yet the main draw with these bottles is their provenance. MacLean says it’s impossible to guess what one would fetch at auction. “It simply depends upon what someone is prepared to pay,” he says.

As whisky writer Dave Broom puts it: “100 year old bottles of whisky are relatively common. Century old bottles of whisky stuck under the ice, belonging to a great explorer whose own tale is almost fantastical are uncommon.”