Shackleton’s whisky returned to Antarctica

PM John Key with Shackleton whiskyThree bottles of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky found frozen under the floorboards of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island, Antarctica have been returned to Antarctica after a productive sojourn in Scotland. Accompanied by the Prime Minister of New Zealand John Key, the bottles were locked in containers and flown from Christchurch Saturday on a U.S. Air Force transport plane. They are scheduled to be reunited with two other crates of whisky and two of brandy that remain undisturbed under Shackleton’s hut by March at the latest.

The whisky was bottled in 1898 after aging for 15 years. Shackleton brought it with him on his ill-fated Nimrod expedition to the South Pole in 1907. Its 47.3% alcohol by volume kept it liquid even as the crates were frozen solid. They were rediscovered under the floorboards by a team from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust in 2006. It took them four years to budge one of the crates so that it could be flown to Canterbury Museum in Christchurch for a very gradual thawing under controlled conditions.

In January of 2011, three of the 11 bottles in the thawed crate were flown to Scotland on a private plane. Whyte & Mackay, the owner of the onetime Mackinlay’s distillery, was keen to examine the whisky, whose original recipe was long lost. The deep freeze had preserved it in like-new condition, and master blender Richard Paterson was tasked with drawing samples from the sealed bottles to taste in the hope of being able to produce a replica.

Master Blender Richard Paterson looks at a bottle of Shackleton's whisky like he's about to make sweet, sweet love to itAfter months of painstaking blending work, Paterson recreated the whisky. A limited edition run of 50,000 bottles flew off the shelves at $150 a pop. Whyte & Mackay donated five percent of sales to the Antarctic Heritage Trust. That amounted to almost $400,000. The first run was so successful that Whyte & Mackay has issued a new product inspired by Shackleton’s whisky. It’s called The Journey, is a blend of different malts, but tastes just like the first replica. Again a percentage of sales will be donated to the Antarctic Heritage Trust which stands to make double the amount this time around, a massive boon to its conservation work.

The original three bottles from which Paterson drew samples with a syringe were flown to New Zealand last month and are now back in Antarctica. A trace amount remains in Scotland, however. Richard Paterson kept a tiny vial of it.

“Nosing, tasting and recreating this amazing piece of history was the highlight of my 40 year career,” [Paterson] enthused.

“I’m delighted that my experience and skill has paid dividends, and not just for the company, the industry or for those that love whisky or history. It’s also made a tangible difference to the AHT and thanks to this second edition, that difference will be even more profound.”

The story of Shackleton’s frozen whisky has inspired a book that tells the story of the epic Nimrod expedition and the creation of the original whisky by Mackinlay’s distillery. Amusingly enough, apparently Shackleton was a near teetotaler, drinking only on rare celebratory occasions. Author Neville Peat even thinks he’s solved the mystery of the missing 12th bottle which was not found in the thawed crate. You can read more about the book in the media release (pdf).