Shackleton’s whiskey

by Robert C. Brears Blog

In 2006, a member of the five-party restoration team was removing ice under the floor boards and came across a couple of wooden crates under Shackleton’s cabin. The labels, blurred from time, read ‘Rare’, ‘Old’ and ‘Whiskey’.
Antarctic Peninsula

Regions: Antarctica

Destinations: Ross Sea

Highlights: Shackleton's hut

Shackleton’s whiskey

In 2006, a member of the five-party Antarctic expedition team sent on a restoration mission was removing ice under the floor boards and came across a couple of wooden crates secreted under Shackleton’s cabin. The labels, blurred from time, read ‘Rare’, ‘Old’ and ‘Whiskey’. The question was: Did these cases contain full bottles of Scotch? If so the Whiskey would be almost 100 years old. The following year the Antarctic Heritage Trust restoration team dug deeper into the hut to try and clear the remaining ice and find the answer to this mystery. To find out, two men – Antarctic Heritage Trust team leader Al Fastier, a New Zealander seconded from the Department of Conservation, and James Blake, son of Sir Peter Blake – arrived at Scott Base on Christmas Eve for a six-week assignment at Cape Royds.

Frozen whisky discovered under the floorboards

Over the January period the pair chipped away at the ice around the cases with the men having to even go below the floorboards in freezing conditions to work away. To stay warm, heat was pumped into the crawl space. With the cases in delicate conditions the men had to use stiff brushes and other hand tools to remove the frozen ice. After days of hard work one of the cases’ labelling could be fully read: Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whiskey. After removing all the ice around the case the whiff of Whiskey filled the air, indicating that at some point of time one of the bottles had cracked. The men hoped that at least one or two bottles were still intact. There was hope as the case appeared to be full of bottles wrapped in straw frozen solid. Conservationist specialists advised the men to not try and attempt to defrost the bottle but it did not stop the rest of the team wondering how good would this Whiskey taste! During further ice removal, three more cases were discovered, making five in total. However, there was speculation that the original spirit may have been drunk only to be replaced with a dubious liquid as a joke: Urine.

Carefully excavating the frozen whisky

In 2008, the fate of the Whiskey crates were on the minds of the conservationists and preparations were made to evacuate them in case of any melt-water flowing through the hut. Relocation was going to involve helicopters however, they were fully booked over the summer period and so the plan did not go ahead. There were nonetheless discussions with a Scottish Whiskey company – Whyte and Mackay – that had acquired the brand through mergers and acquisitions over time on whether samples could be extracted for chemical analysis, with the samples providing a unique insight into turn-of-the-century fermentation, distillation and blending practices. This analysis could then in turn guide the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s goal of managing the rest of the Nimrod Hut Whisky collection. The company even believed the whisky would taste the same as it intended 100 years ago and with the samples the company could even produce a special edition replica drink. However, before any Whiskey would be transported to Scotland the five cases had to be extracted from underneath the hut for potential travel: Each case weighed in its frozen state 40 kg.

The whisky’s trip to the museum

In 2010, the Antarctic Heritage Trust received a permit from New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to allow three Mackinlay Whisky bottles to leave Cape Royds for Scotland for scientific analysis on the condition the bottles would be returned to Antarctica. On 5 February 2010, the Antarctic Heritage Trust announced the Mackinlay Whiskey was on its way to Scotland. In Christchurch, media had gathered to record the event of the cases arriving in special-crafted insulation boxes on a U.S. Airforce C-17 Globemaster, which frequently flies the Antarctica to New Zealand route in support of the United States Antarctic Program. At Christchurch International Airport the insulated box went through the x-ray machine, revealing to all that the bottles inside were intact, with Antarctic Heritage Trust Artefacts Programme Manager Lizzie Meek commenting that ‘’we could clearly see liquid inside some of them. Fantastic’’. Back in the UK, Whyte and Mackay’s Richard Paterson, a respected Whisky ‘nose’, wrote in The Guardian that the discovery was ‘’a gift from the heavens’’ for Whiskey lovers. The original recipe for this discovered Whisky had been lost and so the only way of replicating it was through obtaining a sample, difficult as the Whisky was now on its way from the Operation Deep Freeze base at Christchurch Airport to Canterbury Museum where it would be placed into a chest freezer while museum staff discussed a strategy for thawing it.

Streaming the unthawing process live

To thaw the Whiskey the museum came up with a custom-built 100mm-thick wall, floor and ceiling cool-room that had temperature and humidity controls with triple-glazed windows. The cool-room was placed in the museum’s visitor lounge for the public to see along with a video camera so people from all around the world could watch the Whiskey thaw. Within days the YouTube live-streaming had attracted 108,000 hits and hundreds of visitors had filled past the cool-room to catch a glimpse of the Whiskey silently thawing away. On 13 August 2010 – a Friday – 102 years, seven months and 13 days after the sailing of Nimrod from Lyttleton the thawing was over with the labels on the bottles bearing the name ‘Endurance’.

The whisky safe and sound after an earthquake

There were a few surprises after the Whiskey had thawed. The first was that a bottle from the top layer had gone – there were 11 bottles, not 12 – and so the question was who took it over 100 years ago and how did they know the Whiskey stash was there? The second was the presence of Adelie penguin feathers amongst the bottles. The good news nonetheless was that 10 bottles were intact and three of them were judged to be of good enough condition to return home to Scotland for analysis. After which the remaining bottles were placed in a secure storage area at Canterbury Museum. Nerves were frayed when on 4 September the city was rocked by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake centred 45 km west of the city at a depth of only 11 km. Damage was widespread throughout the city but no lives were lost and neither was any Whiskey. The bottles had been kept separately wrapped up deep inside the museum away from danger.

The three bottles selected then travelled to Scotland inside specially crafted insulation containers. New Zealand officials said the containers were not to be put in cargo hold and because no liquids and gels exceeding 100ml could be carried onboard, the containers had to travel first-class with a courier who was to handcuff themselves to the bin if need be! Once in Scotland the company used a syringe to carefully remove a sample without uncorking the bottle as promised. All together 1,000mL were extracted from the three bottles.

Replica Antarctic whisky on sale

In August 2011, the special edition Antarctic Whiskey was sold across the UK for 100 GBP, five pounds of which was earmarked for donation to the Antarctic Heritage Trust in Christchurch for its heritage work on Ross Island. The 50,000 bottles sold in the first run would net the Trust around NZ$500,000. In November the Whiskey was launched in New York at Manhattan’s Explorers Club, founded in 1904 when Shackleton was figuring out how to get back to Antarctica. Shackleton’s grand-daughter, Hon. Alexander Shackleton tasted the whiskey, all while not being an expert, proclaimed it to ‘’Amazing!’’ Cheers.

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