Reading your biography you have obviously visited the Antarctica on many occasions. Was the idea for this book yours or were you approached by the publisher?
The book was my idea. I already knew of the discovery of the Mackinlay whisky under Shackleton’s Antarctic hut in 2006–07 – described by Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson as “the whisky find of the century” – but the story did not justify a book until Paterson and Whyte & Mackay set out to replicate it. That decision produced a kind of literary ‘closure’. The plot had three parts – The (whisky) Order, The Expedition and the Match (replication). It’s all very well to have such an idea but you could only achieve it if you had first-hand experience of the Nimrod hut at Cape Royds, to which I was first introduced in the late 1970s. You also had to have the support of the hut’s carers, the Antarctic Heritage Trust at Christchurch, and Antarctica New Zealand. I also needed Whyte & Mackay’s cooperation, and another important player was the New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry, for which I’d worked in the 1980s. I knew the key contacts across the story.
If the whisky bottles were discovered in 2007, why did it take until 2010 before three bottles were flown back to Scotland for analysis?
Yes, there were delays in getting one of the three cases back to Christchurch, caused mainly by the difficult logistics and the fact New Zealand takes its Antarctic Treaty obligations seriously.
Permission to take historic objects out of Antarctica is not normally granted and our Foreign Ministry had to be reassured the three bottles destined for sampling, after thawing the case at Christchurch, would be returned to the Antarctic unharmed.
Was it a complete coincidence that you were in the Antarctica in 2007 when the cases of whisky were discovered?
Yes, it was a coincidence, a lucky break, I guess. I spent two summers in Antarctica in the late 1970s as the assigned journalist and photographer with the New Zealand Antarctic Research Programme and I visited the Nimrod hut several times. None of us ever thought there would be a store of whisky or any other beverages embedded in ice under the hut.
It is Intriguing that two cases of brandy were discovered at the same time. Why did this find not generate nearly as much publicity as the whisky did?
I asked the same question of the Antarctic Heritage Trust and Richard Paterson. As far as I know, the Antarctic Heritage Trust has never been approached about releasing the Australian brandy for replication. But for whisky historian and master blender Richard Paterson, who has a family history in the Scotch industry spanning three generations, the discovery of a 100-year-old Scotch associated with Ernest Shackleton was a riveting opportunity. He persevered till he got the result he wanted. I think Shackleton’s 100-yearold whisky was targeted because Scotch is currently the world’s number one spirit and public interest in the Antarctic link made sure that interest would intensify.
Can you describe the extraordinary stipulations that the New Zealand government stated had to be imposed on how the three bottles of whisky had to be transported to Scotland.
The New Zealand Government, not wanting to rock the Antarctic Treaty boat, were bound to ensure the safety of the case and its contents.
Actually the government (Foreign Ministry) stipulations were not as rigorous as those applied by its agent, the Antarctic Heritage Trust. For example, the three bottles selected for transport to Scotland for sampling had to be carried in insulated, locked containers and kept under surveillance the whole way – not stowed in the luggage compartment of the private jet.
How was the whisky extracted by Whyte and Mackay once it reached Scotland?
By six -inch, size 18 gauge stainless-steel syringe in a sterilised environment. A fine biopsy needle was inserted alongside the sampling needle to allow air into the bottle during the removal of the whisky. Varying amounts were extracted from the three bottles, and the total sample came to around one litre, divided into vials and stored at 0-4 degrees Celsius. I saw the three sampled bottles in a locked refrigerator in Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon laboratory after the analysis had been carried out.
Can you describe the process of how the whisky was analysed and what the results were?
In a word, painstaking! For a detailed description, check out the scientific paper in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing Vol 117, No. 2, published in 2011. It was astounding to me the chemistry could confirm the peat that infused flavour into the Mackinlay product in the 1890s had come from Orkney (Eday, in fact). Had the Mackinlay whisky been discovered 15 or 20 years ago, the chemical anaylsis would have been less rigorous.
Besides being put through the chemical wringer, samples were also subjected to a comprehensive sensory anaylsis. The whisky under Shackleton’s hut had been protected from freezing by its high alcohol content (47%). I loved the reaction of Dr James Pryde, Whyte & Mackay’s chief scientist, when he saw the first sample and realised the whisky had survived intact – “It just blew me away!” What happened to the three bottles of whisky once Whyte and Mackay had analysed them and how much was it estimated that each of these bottles would be worth on the open market if ever released?
The three sampled bottles were flown back to New Zealand late last year and were returned to Scott Base, the New Zealand Antarctic station on Ross Island, in February on a United States Air Force C-17 Globemaster that also carried New Zealand Prime Minister John Key. After handing over the bottles, the Prime Minister was presented with a copy of the New Zealand edition of Shackleton’s Whisky. As for the market value of the original Mackinlay whisky, an Australian whisky expert reckoned a bottle might fetch US$69,000. It’s a fanciful figure because the Antarctic Heritage Trust is determined none of the remaining intact bottles of Edwardian-age Mackinlay whisky will ever leave the icy lock-up on Ross Island.