The End of the Shackleton’s Whisky Story

Remember this from October of 2009?

CAPE ROYDS, Antarctica — This spit of black volcanic rock that juts out along the coast of Antarctica is an inhospitable place. Temperatures drop below -50 Fahrenheit and high winds cause blinding snowstorms. The only neighbors are a colony of penguins that squawk incessantly and leave a pungent scent in their wake.

But if you happen upon the small wooden hut that sits at Cape Royds and wriggle yourself underneath, you’ll find a surprise stashed in the foot and a half of space beneath the floorboards. Tucked in the shadows and frozen to the ground are two cases of Scotch whisky left behind 100 years ago by Sir Ernest Shackleton after a failed attempt at the South Pole.

It seems as if the fine folks at Whyte and Mackay have recreated the spirit and are now offering it to the general public. They took a syringe sample from the bottles found in Antartica, and then subjected the sample to analysis. Using that analysis, they went to work.

Whyte and Mackay’s master distiller, Richard Paterson, was able to delve into the wealth of warehoused casks and, with the help of his prodigious nose, blend a number of whiskies in exact proportions to replicate the Shackleton spirit. The re-creation, which is given a stint in sherry casks before bottling, includes some of the remaining whisky from the Glen Mhor distillery, which was demolished in 1986, supplemented with comparable liquor from nearby Dalmore. Benriach, Glenfarclas, and other Speyside whiskies lend their character, along with Balblair, Pulteney, and Jura.

The resulting blend was subjected to the same battery of chemical analysis as the original, and found to stack up quite comparably, their phenolics and esters finely matched.

I’m of two minds of this. First – similar does not mean the same. While I have no doubt that the folks at Whyte and Mackay have done their homework, the result is no more Shackleton’s whiskey than a recreated baseball is the same as the one that Henry Aaron hit over the fence for the 755th time. Invariably someone will sell this as Shackleton’s whisky, and some poor sap will buy it, believing it to be true.

However, all that being said, there’s something amazing about the amount of work that went into this whisky. I have no doubt in my mind that the resulting blend is eerily close to what was found in the bottle in Antartica. This speaks well of, not only the science of the chemical analysis surrounding the sample, but just how much skill is involved in being a master blender. That a blender can analyze any given whisky (single malt or otherwise), and then recreate it from their “library of barrels” , is nothing short of remarkable. Thanks to its novelty, I have little doubt that the resulting “Shackleton’s” whisky will be overpriced a tad, but I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t shell out some measure of money to have a taste.

All that being said, the best bit of the story was found at the end:

Finally, minus the milliliters of whisky that had been carefully syringed out through their corks, the original bottles were returned from Scotland to the Shackleton expedition’s hut, where they have been re-situated as part of the preserved environ by the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something just right about this.