Shackleton’s whiskey at last (plus brandy!)

My Darling Wife,

I am working day and night I can only send a line all I will tell you when I get back and on the way to Sydney. Child I cannot say how I feel about all the worry to you but it is over now sweeteyes and all will go well you can judge from the cables re lectures work etc. The expedition has been a success darling though we did not get the Pole I did my best I had to come back to you and the children.

– letter from Ernest Shackleton to his wife Emily, April 1909, transcribed at “Virtual Shackleton”

On Tuesday night, Dawson City had a sign that our Yukon winter is at least half over. Bombay Peggy’s – the only pub in town that serves martinis – opened again after its annual winter closure. The sun is back and so is my favorite after-work place to relax!

In the middle drinks with friends, I ordered a whiskey. It was a moment to toast two things. First, a toast to another, longer winter: the six-month darkness that Ernest Shackleton and his crew endured in 1908-09 in preparation for excursions to the magnetic south pole (successful!) and the geographic south pole (not successful – this time).

Shackleton's base camp at Cape Royds, Ross Island (photo:

At the end of this expedition, Shackleton and his nine-man shore party reboarded the Nimrod ship, leaving a few things behind: frostbitten toes; ponies that fell in crevasses or onto dinner plates; the hut they had built at Cape Royds; and several crates of whiskey stored in the ice about two feet below the hut. I would guess, reading the letter above, that the crates were the farthest thing from Shackleton’s mind.

But that brings me to my second toast: a cheer to these crates of whiskey, because they’re out of the ice at last! The New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust (NZAHT) discovered the crates in 2006; in November 2009 they announced plans to dig up at least two cases of McKinlay and Co spirits (see the Ice Cubicle’s Dec 12/09 post for more about this story).

Last Friday, February 5, NZAHT excavated five crates. Here’s the story as told by TVNZ:

When conservators began excavating the two crates of apparently forgotten century-old whisky from under Shackleton’s hut, their aim was simply to get the boxes out intact.

“We were lying on our stomachs on the permafrost completely under the hut removing the ice enclosing the boxes, to say it was a pleasant job would be untrue,” says Al Fastier of the NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust.

For three days they chipped their way closer and closer to the crates. Their efforts were more than rewarded, with what they have now stored carefully away.

“We got the two boxes out and were very excited and pleased with ourselves and then we looked through the layer of ice behind the second box and could see through the opaque ice the words whisky again,” says Fastier.

Not only an extra crate of whisky, but two more of brandy would follow.

“There’s still liquid sloshing around indicates that there’s alcohol in the bottles and we can see the neck of one bottle and it’s still got a lead seal around the cork,” says Fastier.

You can see a long clip from the news show here:

Now, what about the scotch itself? Will anyone be allowed to taste it (or would anyone want to?)

A press release from the NZAHT states that the crates will remain on site at Cape Royds (artefacts can’t be removed from Antarctica, according to international agreements). But the great news for scotch drinkers is that samples will be taken from the bottles:

Ice has cracked some of the crates and formed inside them which will make the job of
extracting the contents very delicate. The team is confident that the crates contain intact alcohol, given liquid can be heard when the crates are moved. The smell of whisky in the surrounding ice before excavation commenced also indicated full bottles of spirits were inside, albeit that one or more might have broken.

It’s not clear who will have access to these samples, though it looks like the list includes the folks at Whyte and Mackay (the current name of the distillery that supplied the McKinlay to Shackleton’s expedition). Master blender Richard Paterson has been blogging about his company’s hopes to recreate the recipe; he writes that “it’s great to actually see it” and I’m sure there will be details about the recreation process as it happens.

the crates as they look now at the Cape Royds hut (photo:

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