It was a new one on me. Richard Paterson seemed almost nervous, or certainly less like his usual ebullient self. The pale straw liquid dropped into the glasses and instead of his usual informed introduction, he just sat back. ”Let’s have a look,” he said quietly. It was the first of many surprises. Not just Paterson’s demeanour but the liquid itself - for starters, the colour was extraordinarily light. There was no smoke on the nose. Where was the weight and power that was expected? “I know,” he said, the smile returning. “Amazing isn’t it?”
We’ve been monitoring this story from the moment when, in 2007, three cases of whisky were discovered underneath the Antarctic hut which was base for Ernest Shackleton’s 1907 attempt on the South Pole. They contained the last remaining stock of the 25 cases which had been provided to the expedition by Edinburgh-based blender and broker Chas. Mackinlay (now owned by W&M). Though Shackleton failed to be the first man to reach the South Pole he managed to get close, when bad weather forced him to turn back he got his whole team home safely, hurriedly abandoning the hut with supplies, most of their clothes and the whisky.
The whisky was forgotten, almost like Shackleton himself. There is something very British about the manner in which the ill-prepared Robert Scott is considered the hero of the Antarctic while Irish-born Shackleton who lived to tell the tale has, until recently, been little more than a footnote.
Yet here is a liquid connection. Looking at the pale liquid I can imagine them huddled round their little pot stoves, eating penguin eggs and drinking whisky to keep their spirits up. It would have produced moments of reverie, jokes, thoughts of home, though who can say what went through their minds as the heat of the spirit warmed their bodies? Looking at it now, there’s a chill in the spine.
When I’d met Paterson on the day three bottles arrived back in Scotland for scientific analysis he was still unclear what they even were: blend, blended malt or single malt. Now, after archival research it transpires that this example of “Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt” was from the Glen Mhor distillery in Inverness that had been bottled in 1907, at approximately 10 years of age and at 47.3%.
It had been lightly peated with Orcadian peat being used.
“My first concern was that 100 years under the ice might have meant the colour might have fallen out or that the whisky might have gone cloudy,” says Paterson. “But it was as clear as a bell.” Further analysis showed it hadn’t been coloured and that a mix of woods was likely to have been been used.
There is a commonly held assumption that all Victorian whiskies were heavier than today’s expressions; that in days before bourbon casks were common, that sherry would have had a dominant part to play; that peat would have been more assertive. Here was a chance to test these beliefs and it showed them to be false. This was light, floral and estery with a touch of marzipan, light oiliness and only a hint of incense like smoke and, incredibly, had retained its freshness in the freezer.
Paterson then pours another sample, his replica of the original. “I had three issues to deal with to make this as accurate as possible,” he explains. “The age was to be between six and 10, it had to have light smoke and a mix of woods, and the aromas you see in the original.” To make the task trickier Glen Mhor was demolished in 1983. “I did have one cask of Glen Mhor,” he replies. “Amazingly, the cask number was 1907.”
The replica therefore is a blended malt using that Glen Mhor alongside a heavily peated Dalmore, Tamnavulin and a Jura aged in Limousin oak.
It’s an amazingly close reworking of the original sharing its delicacy of nature and charm and wispy smokiness. 50,000 bottles have been made with five per cent of the proceeds being donated to the Antarctic Heritage Trust swelling their coffers by a hoped for £250,000.
There’s no doubt that the replica is evidence of Paterson’s skill, but is it the same whisky? No. But it never could be. The past is the past. We can (and should) learn from it, but we cannot ever relive it. Any attempt in the 21st century to replicate something which happened 100 or more years ago is shifting of perspective which utterly changes the reality and sanctity of the past. So, while Paterson has authentically reproduced the flavours of the original, it would be beyond even his skill to recreate the whisky itself. Glen Mhor is no more and with it has gone its coal fires, its peated barley, its yeast, its people. The original whisky teaches us a huge amount about a Victorian mindset. Its replication is a homage to its makers and to Ernest Shackleton.