Shackleton's whisky stash yields more than expected

CAPE ROYDS, Antarctica — Preservationist Al Fastier spent three long, cold days laying on his stomach in Antarctica earlier this month, chipping away at ice that had accumulated under the 102-year-old hut built by Sir Ernest Shackleton. His goal was to retrieve two crates of whisky that the famed polar explorer brought down with him — and then abandoned — after his unsuccessful 1908 expedition to the South Pole.

After getting the two crates out, Fastier and the archeologist working with him peered through the wall of ice that remained and saw another box. They kept chipping away with drills and hand tools, and soon two more crates appeared. In all, they recovered three cases of Charles Mackinlay & Co. whisky and one of brandy, as well as one crate of brandy labeled Hunter Valley Distillery Limited Allandale. He could hear liquid sloshing in the crates and peeked into one box with a missing board and saw a bottle with an intact cork inside.

“It was a fantastic outcome,” Fastier said Saturday from Scott Base, New Zealand’s Antarctic station. He’s program manager with Antarctic Heritage Trust, the New Zealand nonprofit charged with conserving the building.

The first two crates were discovered four years ago when Fastier and his team cleared out a century’s worth of ice under the hut because it was damaging the fragile structure. The boxes were frozen to the porous rock in the foot and a half of space beneath the hut and couldn’t be safely removed without the specialized drills the group brought this time.

Perhaps no one was more excited to learn of the bottles’ safe retrieval than Richard Paterson, master blender at Whyte & Mackay, the Glasgow company that now owns Mackinlay.

“Absolutely fantastic, unbelievable,” Paterson said of the news. He’s been lobbying since the crates’ original discovery to get several bottles of the whisky — or at the very least some samples — so he can learn what a Mackinlay from that era tasted like. Company records show it was a 10-year-old blend. He expects it to be heavier and smokier than today’s Scotch.

If he gets a sample, Paterson is considering issuing a recreation of the Shackleton whisky. The company recipes have long since disappeared, he said, so these bottles may be the only way to discover what that vintage Mackinlay tasted like. If the corks have remained intact, whisky experts agree that the spirit should taste much as it did when bottled.

Obviously, the fact that the whisky has been entombed in Antarctic ice and belonged to Shackleton make this a more exciting discovery than just any old 19th century booze.

“It’s not just that a case of whisky has been found, that’s so bloody boring,” Paterson said.

Scottish whisky author Charles MacLean agrees. Hundred-year-old bottles of whisky aren’t terribly rare. Three or four go to auction each year, he said. He couldn’t speculate what a bottle of this whisky would be worth and said the price will be set by how much someone is willing to pay.

“The Shackleton provenance is, of course, priceless,” he wrote from his home in Edinburgh.

MacLean explained that Charles Mackinlay was one of the earliest and most prominent Scotch blenders, and Paterson is one of today’s most respected blenders, having earned himself the nickname “the Nose.” So a recreation by Paterson of Mackinlay’s whisky would attract interest.

It seems possible Paterson will get his chance, despite an international treaty that governs all historic artifacts found in Antarctica stipulating that they remain in place unless they need to be removed from the continent for conservation reasons. Indeed, Shackleton’s hut is maintained as a museum, with its 5,000 artifacts on display for the roughly 900 tourists who come through annually and interested history buffs who tour it online.

Nigel Watson, executive director of Antarctic Heritage Trust, said, “it’s not beyond the realms of possibility” that Paterson would get some of the whisky, but the organization is not rushing toward a decision. Its first priority is to safely conserve the crates, bottles and liquid. The boxes are in varied conditions, some of them cracked in spots with ice built up inside. The group expects it will take a couple months or so to come up with a conservation plan.

“They’ve been under the hut for 100 years,” Fastier said. “I think another couple months won’t make a difference.”