When explorer Ernest Shackleton and the crew of the “Nimrod Expedition” landed on the black, windswept rock of Cape Royds, Antarctica, in 1907, it’s likely they didn’t anticipate that the harsh conditions of their voyage would force them to leave behind five crates of whisky and brandy. Even less likely was that some whisky would survive, intact and essentially undamaged. But, over 100 years later, those same icebound crates were discovered — and a whisky brand resurrected.
The whisky belonging to Shackleton’s team was supplied by Mackinlay’s, a brand now owned by the Glasgow, Scotland-based Whyte & Mackay Group. Whyte & Mackay owns distilleries such as Dalmore at Alness in Ross-shire, Fettercairn in Kincardineshire, Tamnavulin in Speyside, and Jura on the same-named island in the Hebrides archipelago.
The blend belonging to Shackleton’s team was “Rare Old Highland Malt,” and was bottled at the rather unusual strength of 47.3 percent ABV. According to Whyte & Mackay company lore, the higher-proof Rare Old Highland Malt was custom-made for Shackleton to withstand freezing temperatures. (This may help to explain how it survived being entombed in the Antarctic ice for over a century.)
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The unexpected discovery of the whisky happened in 2006, when a member of the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) — which conducts Antarctic research and was working to conserve Shackleton’s 1907-08 expedition base, a still-standing wooden shack — crawled under the building on their belly. According to Lizzie Meek, the AHT Artefacts Programme Manager, the team’s goal was to chip away at the ice and to install waterproof dams to help protect against seasonal meltwater that can flow underneath the hut and refreeze, damaging the structure and the objects inside of it.
When the team found a number of wooden cases with the word “whisky” printed on them, it triggered a careful excavation which, owing to the slow, methodical nature of the work and a number of other challenges, took multiple years. When the AHT team began to suspect the crates might actually contain whisky, they reached out to Whyte & Mackay to alert them of the discovery.
AHT’s program manager Al Fastier and objects conservator Lucy Skinner ultimately pulled the crates from the ice in 2010 — revealing close to a dozen unbroken bottles inside.
“It was also exciting to see the original packaging materials of straw bottle covers and tissue wrapping, as well as the details of labels visible through that tissue-thin covering,” Meek tells VinePair. Ten of the 11 bottles found were completely intact and, according to The New York Times, three of those bottles were turned over to Richard Paterson, Whyte & Mackay’s third-generation master distiller and blender, and the distillery’s lead chemist James Pryde.
To recreate the artifact whisky, Whyte & Mackay turned to a process involving both empirical science (using Pryde and other on-staff chemists and microbiologists as its guides) and the more ephemeral, olfactory expertise of Paterson, who also carries the title of “Master Nose.”
“Richard is more of an artistic whisky maker,” says Kieran Healy-Ryder, head of communication and corporate relations for Whyte & Mackay. “He used his nose to try to recreate the whisky, using the whisky we have today.”
That whisky, blended from existing stock sourced by Whyte & Mackay, was named Mackinlay’s “Shackleton” Rare Old Highland Whisky. The bottle sold as a limited release in a wooden box emblazoned with “British Antarctic Expedition 1907” at a cost of around $250. The blend proved popular enough to spawn an entirely new brand, Shackleton Whisky, a blended Scotch developed at Invergordon Distillery, which is part of the Whyte & Mackay portfolio. Priced at a much more affordable $40, that blend is married for an extended period in ex-bourbon American white oak barrels and Spanish sherry butts.
As for what it was like to actually discover the whisky, Meek says: “I had a couple of great moments with the whisky — one was standing at the back of the C-17 on the tarmac one night in Christchurch, as the tail dropped open, and dwarfed there on the huge ramp was this tiny wooden crate covered in ‘fragile’ stickers, with a small crowd of excited-looking U.S. military personnel hovering nearby. I wondered what Shackleton’s men would have thought of the sight.”