Tasting Shackleton’s Whisky

The replication of a historic whisky might reflect merely our fascination with artificial artifacts—-but the whisky yielded a surprise

Courtesy Whyte and Mackay/Journal of the Institute of Brewing

During the 1908 Nimod expedition, the ill-equipped British adventurer Ernest Shackleton attempted to be the first to reach the South Pole. Having failed to do so less than 100 miles short of his destination, he abandoned the continent–and the entire contents of his supply huts. In 2007, mycology experts recommended cleaning out the ice under one of the huts on Ross Island to help stave off an invasion of hungry Antarctic fungi. In the process, conservators discovered three crates of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky, apparently left by Shackleton or a member of his crew.

Initially, the conservators were unable to dislodge the crates, but in 2010, the whisky came free. After it thawed out in New Zealand, the current owners of the Mackinlay label, the Scottish distillery Whyte and Mackay, set about tasting the sample and replicating the centenarian spirit. They sampled the alcohol with a syringe and analyzed the recovered stock using both gas chromatography and a 15-member expert tasting panel (a.k.a. “sensory analysis”). Because the alcohol had been preserved in permafrost, it was, in large part, no worse for the wear. Then Richard Peterson, the distillery’s master blender, blended 25 different malt whiskys made since the 1980s to clone the distinctive taste of the original, which had “peaty, mature woody, sweet, dried fruit and spicy aromas.”

At face value, the replication of a historic whisky might reflect little more than our fascination with artificial artifacts—the instant nostalgia you can find in CDs engineered to sound like vinyl, camera-phone photographs designed to look like Polaroids, or diets designed to replicate the eating habits of Paleolithic hominins. If a modern distiller remade the flavors of a 19th century single malt without going through the arduous process of growing heirloom varieties of barley, malting and distilling the grain, or, not to mention, hiding it under a hut in Antarctica for 100 years, then doesn’t the contemporary culture of the copy somehow muddle the waters of authenticity?

Well, what’s curious is that, at least according to a paper the distillers published in The Journal of the Institute of Brewing (PDF), the 100-year-old whisky yielded another surprise:

Malt whisky from this period was generally regarded as robust, peaty and too “heavy” in style for ordinary consumption. Our analysis however describes a surprisingly light, complex whisky, with a lower phenolic content than expected.

In other words, it tasted quite modern. The recreated blend will probably prove to be the expedition’s sole contributions to eating and drinking today (barring any sudden appetite for Manchurian pony meat or “Forced March,” the caffeinated cocaine pills that were sort of the Red Bull of the day). And, as for the three crates, per order of conservationists, they’re back under the floorboards where there were discovered—perpetually, you might say, on ice.

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