Ernest Shackleton’s 100-year-old whisky

When Ernest Shackleton was ordering provisions for his 1907 expedition to Antarctica, he made it clear that along with the requisite tins of herrings, mulligatawny soup, gooseberry jam and marmalade, he and his men required a supply of whisky. Not just any whisky, but a fine Highland malt. Twenty-five cases of it.

When Shackleton left Antarctica in 1909, after reaching 88° 23′ south – the closest anyone had been to the South Pole – he left some of that whisky behind. Now, thanks to an international team of conservators and chemists, we know what the whisky looked like and how it was made. And whisky-lovers willing to pay £100 (NZ$200) for a bottle of the replica whisky that went on sale last month will know just what it tasted like.

Shackleton’s whisky had been forgotten until 2006, when conservators from the Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) discovered the corners of five frozen crates beneath Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds. After three seasons during which conservators painstakingly chipped away at a century of ice accumulation in the crawl space beneath the hut, three of the crates labelled “Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Whisky” were removed last year. One crate was flown to Canterbury Museum to be thawed and examined. According to AHT conservator Lizzie Meek, it looked more like a 40kg block of ice than a crate of whisky.

“Over the years, water had gotten into the crate and filled up every nook and cranny and the whole thing was a big iceblock,” says Meek. The first sign that there were bottles inside came when the crate went through airport security at Christchurch. “The bottles showed up on x-ray and we could clearly see liquid inside some of them.”

At Canterbury Museum, in a specially prepared cold room, the crate, which had spent 100 years at temperatures down to minus 40°C, was gradually brought up to 4°C to thaw. Once the ice, speckled with lumps of scoria, was gone, conservators recovered 11 bottles of whisky, carefully wrapped in tissue paper and protective straw. Meek describes them as being in “fantastic condition.”

The AHT decided that as well as preserving the whisky crates and bottles, it had an opportunity to find out more about what was inside them. The initial plan was for a small sample of liquid to be removed to find out more about historic whisky making, but when the current owner of Whyte & Mackay, the parent company of Mackinlay’s, got involved, the project took a grander turn. Three bottles of whisky were transported to Whyte & Mackay in Scotland for analysis by the distillery’s chemists. The bottles travelled in style, in a high-tech chilly bin filled with ice and gel packs, handcuffed to the arm of Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson, on the private jet of Whyte & Mackay owner Vijay Mallya.

In Scotland, chemists at Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon distillery, with input from analysts at the Scotch Whisky Research Institute in Edinburgh, subjected the whisky to a battery of tests. Under sterile conditions, a sampling needle was passed through the cork of each bottle to remove a 100ml sample.

After the liquid was analysed for variables such as microbiology, alcohol levels, pH and acidity, samples were sent to outside laboratories for further analysis. After the mass spectrometers and gas and liquid chromotographs had done their work – including radiocarbon-dating the whisky and measuring levels of ethyl esters, phenols, cations, anions, sugars and metals – it was up to a panel of 15 expert “noses” from the Scotch Whisky Research Institute to profile the whisky’s flavour. Using a fixed vocabulary, they scored the whisky as having a balance of “peaty, mature woody, sweet, dried fruit and spicy” aromas. (That’s not too bad for a scale that also includes such less desirable descriptors as “goat” and “stagnant drains”.)

The first thing the analysts noted, in a paper recently published in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, was how well the whisky was preserved. Whisky ages in the cask, not in the bottle, and temperatures at Cape Royds had preserved the whisky in its 1907 state. Analysis revealed a well-preserved malt whisky of 47.3% alcohol by volume – high enough to stop the alcohol freezing – made with water from Loch Ness and using peat from the Orkney Isles.

When distilled, whisky is clear, like gin, with the colour coming over time from the wooden barrels in which the spirit is aged. Analysis of compounds formed from the breakdown of lignins from the cask maturation of the whisky, along with the levels of fructose and sucrose, revealed a whisky matured for five to 10 years in sherry casks made from American Oak.

Paterson then attempted to reconstruct Shackleton’s 1907 whisky as a blend of modern whiskies. The result, according to whisky expert and writer Dave Broom, who has tasted both the 100-year-old whisky and the replica, is “bang on”. A percentage of global sales from the replica whisky goes to the AHT, which stands to raise $500,000 for Antarctic conservation projects. The bottles that travelled to Scotland will be back in New Zealand soon, and will be returned to the crate, which will be resealed and returned to its place in Antarctica, at Shackleton’s hut. As for the other two crates found beneath the hut, the label on the side says they are brandy, and word is they are next in line for conservation.

First published in The Listener, 29 October 2011

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About Rebecca Priestley

I have a PhD in the history & philosophy of science and I write about science and science history. I live in New Zealand.
This entry was posted in Antarctic, Listener science, Travel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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