Shackleton’s 100-yr-old whisky

What kind of whisky would would you offer this man?

While we wait for meetings in the Copenhagen Climate Conference to draw some conclusions about the future of ice, The Ice Cubicle takes a moment to consider some ice from the past – and what it saved for us.

The expedition: It’s no news that Ernest Shackleton was a determined man. A charismatic and focused man, too, focused enough (and skilled enough) to explore Antarctica four times in his life.

The 1907-09 Nimrod Expedition was Shackleton’s second trip to the white unknown, and his first time leading an expedition. It was also his first, and possibly only, time to discard two crates of whisky. (See my Feb 11/10 post for an update on the whisky’s whereabouts)

After a long, dark winter in the tiny hut they built at Cape Royds, the crew formed two exploration teams in September 1908. Shackleton’s group headed south for the geographic Pole, a 1700-mile trek; while the Northern Party took on a 1260-mile journey towards the South Magnetic Pole.

The Northern Party (Edgeworth David, A.F. Mackay and Douglas Mawson) reached their goal on January 15, 1909, with bleeding lips and snowblindness as extra prizes.

But Shackleton’s party had to choose between survival and the geographic pole. Pounded by blizzards, Shackleton, Frank Wild, Jameson Adams and Eric Marshall came within 97 miles of the South Pole. Then they had to return to McMurdo Sound – or die.

Their farthest south was reached at 9 am on January 9, 1909: 88°23’S, longitude 162°. It was the furthest Southern British visitation at that date. (Norwegian Roald Amundsen‘s team had been the first humans to reach the South Pole, at 3:00 pm on December 14, 1911.)

Shackleton, Jameson Adams, Eric Marshall and Frank Wild came within 100 miles of the South Pole - not sure which one's out of the frame taking the picture (photo

The booze: This section’s for Scotch lovers (guilty!). News has been circulating since early November that Shackleton and his men somehow left two crates of McKinlay and Co whisky behind, buried about 2 feet in the ice beneath their wintering-hut at Cape Royds! Considering the arduous conditions they had all survived, sight of the Nimrod was probably such a relief that the thought of their stash never even crossed their minds.

Curiously, the whiskey was found 3 years ago by the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, the group that’s restoring the Cape Royds hut. Yet the biggest buzz appeared this fall, when the Trust announced they will saw the crates out of the ice in January 2010. An enthused BBC article details it all here.

In response, distillers Whyte and Mackay, which owns the McKinlay brand, are running a lot of blog posts about how they’re keen to get hold of a bottle to try and recreate the taste. Master Blender Richard Paterson notes that more than 500 news articles and blog posts have been written about the imminent resurfacing of the whiskey (guess this is at least #501!).

“An old brand from McKinlay and Co called ‘Rare Old’ that was part of a consignment of 25 crates given to Shackleton for his expedition,” Paterson writes.

No pictures yet of the whiskey bottles or crates, but this above-surface collection of salt looks a little rough ...

The ice: This section’s for glaciphiles. Ice is a fantastic preservation material – in the short term. In the long term, it becomes merciless. It will alter the physics, the flavour, the texture, the density, of anything edible, including alcohol. The big question surrounding Shackleton’s whisky after 100 years of treatment by Antarctic ice is obvious: what will it taste like?

While most news articles quote scientists and conservators saying the equivalent of “oooh, we’d rather not know!” – c’mon, most Scotch drinkers would want to know. Adding some logic to the equation, an anonymous blogger with detailed knowledge (it appears) of ice’s long-term devastation effects posted these details on what he thinks this rare Rare Old will taste like. Complete with snarky ending!

Here’s the problem: alcohol *does* freeze. At 80 proof, the freezing point is about -30C. And if my hamlet of Kingston manages to hit that low mark annually, I’m betting the Antarctic does as well. Now, when booze freezes, it first separates the water from the alcohol, which wreaks havoc on the sugars in the bottle. Essentially, these bottles will still be alcoholic, but will taste much like penguin piss. Except perhaps to Whyte and Mackay, which now owns the Mackinlay brand, and is itself owned by a large Indian conglomerate. They’re hoping to get enough of a sample that they can reproduce the blend.

Problem 2: Just b/c it’s old, doesn’t mean it’s good. Mackinlay Scotch back in 1909 was just as bad as Whyte and Mackay is today. Why would you want to reproduce it, aside from a shameless marketing? Oh right, shameless marketing.

The hut: This section’s for artefact lovers. Lots of small but good snaps of the hut as it looked in 1999 are here, look, I’m borrowing another for you right now:

The fir-and-steel hut was pre-built and carried south in sections on the Nimrod. It was then:

“strengthened with iron cleats bolted to main posts and horizontal timbering, and the roof was reinforced with iron tie rods. The hut was lined with match-boarding and the walls and roof were covered first with strong felt, then one-inch tongued and grooved boards, followed by an additional covering of felt. Granulated cork was used as insulation. The hut was to be erected on wooden piles, driven into the ice, with rings attached to the roof so that guy ropes could be used to give additional resistance to the gales” ( for more).

Here’s a thoughtful 5:36-long video about the preservation of Shackelton’s 1908 shack, featuring several conservators working there for the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

Shackleton portrait at start of post from

P.S. Shackleton’s relationship with ice obviously increased remarkably during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914–17, when the Endurance froze intractably into an ice floe.

The Ice Cubicle will publish a post about Shackleton and ice at some point; in the meantime, any passionate writer wants to write about it for the site would be welcome to contact me. The more ice-fanatic voices the better!

5 thoughts on “Shackleton’s 100-yr-old whisky”

  1. Heh. Good post 🙂

    My snarky ending is also probably dead on, if Paterson’s own behaviour (and blogging) is anything to go on. It’s marketing, pure and simple….


  2. As Shackleton was an Irishman and Quaker, leaves me to think that his crew including other Irishmen such as Tom Crean ditched the Scotch in favour of Irish Whiskey such as Jameson,Powers,Tullamore or Bushmills…..
    Just a thought !! Slainte,,


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