What do you get when you take a polar explorer, the Antarctic continent, and a case of McKinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt? A tale of liquid history that spans three centuries, and leaves a lingering aftertaste even today.
Antarctica is the coldest, highest, windiest, driest continent on earth. It is often associated with ideas of heroism, illustrated by sepia men in firs battling against the blizzard. One such man was Ernest Shackleton.
Hailed today as a model leader, Shackleton was described as a restless adventurer who also loved poetry. As the leader of several expeditions, including the 1907-09 Nimrod expedition to the Ross Sea region, he appreciated the importance of keeping his mens’ spirits high during the long Antarctic night. Hence he packed 25 cases of whisky beneath the floorboards of his Cape Royds Hut, to be rationed out during the stay. Most were enjoyed, but three of them lay forgotten, until a team from the NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust discovered the crates some 100 years later.
The Great Whiskey Thaw
Surprisingly, the bottles they found were still intact, so a plan was hatched to transport the crates to Christchurch to be slowly unfrozen. Dubbed “The Great Whisky Thaw“, this exercise had New Zealand on tenterhooks all summer long. What would the whisky smell like? Would the bottles be able to be restored? The answer to the first question was “delicious,” and the second question “yes.”
Then things began to get really interesting. The Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Brand is now owned by Whyte & Mackay, who still make whisky today. It was suggested that a sample of the whisky should be transported to Scotland so that a replica could be created, a whole century after the first batch made its epic voyage south. Three 100ml samples were taken to use for the recreation, and from those it was determined that the original water had come from Loch Ness, and that the peat used was from the Orkney Isles. This was a historical treasure hunt for flavours and aromas that took its players to the ends of the earth and back again – quite literally.
A whiskey story of three centuries
Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte & Mackay, described this as “the whisky story of the century.” More accurately, it’s the story of three centuries: distilled in 1895, bottled 1907, left in Antarctica in 1909, found in 2007, and replicated in 2011. The replica went on sale, with a percentage of profits going back to the Antarctic Heritage Trust for restoration of further Antarctic huts.
When visitors come ashore at the old whaling station of Grytviken on South Georgia, Antarctica, to visit Shackleton’s grave, whisky is often used to toast the life of the Antarctic explorer. So it is that the amber liquid carries echoes of a time long past, as it continues to link the palates of today with those of the Heroic Era. Neville Peat says it best in the press release for his book on Shackleton’s Whisky:
“Antarctic exploration and whisky are both steeped in history, maturity, endurance, character, and edgy technology.”
There’s something to think about next time you enjoy a dram, or peruse the Antarctic section of the library!