The story of Shackleton’s whisky on TV

It’s Expedition Week on the National Geographic Channel. To mark the occasion with proper entertainingness, the cable channel will air a new documentary about explorer Ernest Shackleton’s 1907-09 Nimrod expedition to the South Pole, the crate of whisky he left behind, the story of its discovery and recreation. Expedition Whisky debuts on Thursday, November 3rd at 8PM EST.

Using rare archival material and the only remaining film footage of Shackleton and his crew, the special tells the story of Shackleton’s poorly supplied and ill-planned but ultimately rather successful expedition. He didn’t quite reach the South Pole but he got within 100 miles of it, farther south than anyone had gone before him. That’s damn impressive considering that he brought no dog teams in favor of Mongolian ponies that sank in the snow up to their chests so his team ended up having to drag sleds themselves. (The ponies ended up dinner.)

Realizing that they were all going to die if he insisted on going those last 97 miles to the South Pole, Shackleton reluctantly turned his crew around went back to base camp at Cape Royds on Ross Island near McMurdo Sound. The picture on the left, taken upon their return to Cape Royds, shows you what a toll the adventure took on them. Shackleton, second from the left, is the oldest of the four at 33 years old. Frank Wild was a mere baby at 23. They all look easily 20 years older than they are.

The daring expedition made a splash in the Edwardian press, despite its failure, and Shackleton was knighted after his return to England. The three crates of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky left behind under the base camp hut — possibly intentionally hidden by provisions master and known alcoholic Frank Wild for his private tippling — were frozen in the permafrost. That’s where they were discovered in 2006 by restorers from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Expedition Whisky then follows the story of the whisky itself, how it was thawed in New Zealand, how three bottles were flown to Scotland via private plane so they could be analyzed by the corporate descendant of Mackinlay’s. The bottles traveled in high style, chained to the wrist of Whyte & Mackay’s master blender Richard Paterson whose nose was once insured at Lloyd’s of London for $2.4 million. Here’s a clip showing Paterson and James Pryde, biochemist, cell biologist and Whyte & Mackay’s chief chemist, carefully extracting a giant syringe-full of precious whisky from one of the bottles.

On a related note, I tried to secure a bottle of the Shackleton whisky replica via my local purveyor of wine and spirits but was brutally rebuffed. Thankfully there’s the Internets, so if you have 150 bucks burning a hole in your pocket (plus ten or so for shipping), you too can sip on Whyte & Mackay’s recreation of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky.