Connect to share and comment

Whisky on (Antarctic) ice

Explorer Ernest Shackleton loved his Scotch whisky. And he left a stash at the bottom of the world.

Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte & Mackay, the Glasgow whisky company that now owns the Mackinlay label, is eager to learn of the whisky's fate. He's equally hopeful that he gets to taste some of it.

He has a 1907 letter from Shackleton acknowledging receipt of the cases, along with a photograph of the bottles' label. The company may have donated the cases, which Paterson said cost 28 shillings each, as polar explorers came looking for sponsors for their trips, which were usually run on tight budgets. "Shackleton has been one of my heroes for many years," he said. "It's nice to think that perhaps we helped him when his other spirits were down, that our spirits kicked him up a wee bit."

Paterson said he'd expect that when bottled, the whisky was heavy and peaty, which was the style in that era. He'd like to sample it by sticking a needle through the cork and extracting some of the liquid with a syringe. If the bottles stayed airtight — a big if since the corks may have shifted as they were expanding and contracting with the changes in temperature — the whisky would likely taste much as it did in Shackleton's day, Paterson said.

A whisky's flavor develops as it's aged in barrels because air is able to reach it. Once it's bottled and cut off from external oxygen, it stops changing in taste. If oxygen was sneaking back into the bottles, the whisky would have continued aging and could have started to go bad, much like food that's left out too long.

Even if the bulk of the bottles remain in Antarctica for historic reasons, Paterson is hopeful that a couple can be returned to the company. One would go in the Mackinlay family archives and the other could be auctioned off, he said.

Helen Arthur, who has written six books about whiskey from her home in southern England, said it's difficult to guess what a bottle of Shackleton's whiskey would fetch, but if it's in good shape and the label is intact, it could be upwards of $1,000. While she doubts the whisky still tastes very good, she doesn't think a buyer would be interested in it for sipping, but rather for its lineage.

If the bottles stay in the hut, which sees about 900 visitors a year, they will be protected from any over eager collectors, Fastier said. No one is allowed into the huts without a guide, and the value of an artifact often dictates how high up on a shelf it's placed.

Paterson said he'll be disappointed if that is the whiskey's final resting place.

"It's been laying there lonely and neglected," he said. "Can it not come back to Scotland where it was born?"