Shackleton's dram gives distiller a taste for adventure

A WHISKY that sustained explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated expedition to the South Pole a century ago is to be brought back to life by drilling a bottle out of the Antarctic ice.

• Sir Ernest Shackleton

Whisky giant Whyte & Mackay has asked a team of New Zealand explorers to bring back a long-lost sample of McKinlay and Co whisky during a January polar expedition.

Two crates of the long- defunct "Rare Old" brand are frozen in the ice 97 miles from the pole, discarded by Shackleton and his men when they abandoned their 1909 polar mission.

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The crates were donated by McKinlay and Co, owned by Whyte & Mackay, to the pre-war expedition.

The New Zealand team have agreed to use special drills to free the crates and bring back a sample for the whisky company's world-renowned master blender, Richard Paterson.

Even if they cannot bring back a full bottle, they are planning to extract some of the whisky with a syringe.

Paterson intends to recreate the famous old whisky at Whyte & Mackay's Glasgow blending room by analysing the content and replicating the mix. If the experiment is successful, original McKinlay whisky could be put back on sale.

"I really hope we can get some back here," Paterson said. "It's been laying there lonely and neglected. It should come back to Scotland where it was born.

"Even if most of the bottles have to remain in Antarctica for historic reasons, it would be good if we could get a couple."

He believes the whisky could be drinkable and taste the same as it did 100 years ago. "When that whisky was made it would have been quite heavy and peaty as that was the style in the early 1900s," he explained. "It may taste the same as it did back then if the cork has stayed in the bottle and kept it airtight.

"However, if the whisky is on its side, the cork may have been eroded by the whisky or air may have got in some other way – especially if the corks have been contracting and expanding with the temperature changes over the years and seasons.

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"Failing that, I'd be hopeful that someone would be able to take a syringe with them, insert it into the whisky and draw some out for me that way. That would preserve the bottle but also let us see – 100 years on – what a whisky from then was like and try to recreate this famous old brand."

Paterson says the bottles are an important part of Scotland's whisky heritage. "I'd put the whisky next to the letter I have from Shackleton, acknowledging receipt of the cases," he said. "The company may have donated the cases, which 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. 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."

Shackleton, an Anglo-Irishman, set off in a bid for the South Pole in 1907 and took 25 crates of whisky. He gave up, defeated by harsh conditions, just days away from the pole.

When a rescue ship arrived in 1909 to pick his men up, they left their supplies behind in their hut at Cape Royds, including reindeer sleeping bags, tins of boiled mutton and bottled gooseberries. They also abandoned the two cases of whisky in the snow outside the hut.

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the pole in December 1911, less than three years later.

The whisky crates remain buried in the ice at Cape Royds. They were discovered by polar explorers in their wooden cases in January 2006, but couldn't be removed as they were too deeply embedded.

However, the team going back to Antarctica in January – braving -30C temperatures to survey the hut – have agreed to try to retrieve some bottles.

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International protocols agreed by 12 Antarctic Treaty nations dictate that the crates should remain in Antarctica unless they need to be taken off the continent for conservation reasons. Whyte & Mackay argues that its efforts to recreate the drink and display the bottles are a good reason to remove at least a sample of the whisky.

Al Fastier from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, who is leading the expedition to Cape Royds in January, is determined to uncover the crates.

He was there the day the crates were discovered in 2006 when the team was clearing out a century's worth of ice that had accumulated under the hut, causing structural problems.

He said: "It was a very exciting time of actually finding artefacts that possibly hadn't been seen since the historic explorers left."

The team will use a special ice drill to cut through decades of accumulated ice about 2ft thick so they can pull the crates out. But Fastier insists he has no wish to taste the whisky. He said: "No. It's better to imagine it than to taste it. That way it keeps its mystery."

Whisky enthusiasts are, however, looking forward to tasting the long lost dram.

David Williamson of the Scotch Whisky Association said: "It is certainly an intriguing prospect to think we might get a taste of a whisky that has been frozen in time from 1909. There is no reason why it could not be perfectly drinkable given the right conditions and a bit of luck. I would love to taste the actual stuff itself. I'm also sure there would be a lot of people who would like to get their hands on a new version."

Find out more on efforts to return the whisky bottles at Richard Paterson's blog and podcasts at