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Whiskey Salvaged From 79-Year-Old Scottish Shipwreck Is Up for Sale

A commercial diver recovered the intact bottle of spirits—which is no longer safe for consumption—in 1987

A bottle of whiskey, a diving helmet and bricks recovered from the wreck of the SS Politician, which sank off the coast of Scotland in 1941. (The Grand Whisky Auction)
smithsonianmag.com

Whiskey connoisseurs in search of a briny dram packing a historical wallop are in luck: A bottle of Scotch whisky recovered from the wreck of the S.S. Politician, which sank off the coast of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides in 1941, is now up for auction. Sadly, the Grand Whisky Auction, which is conducting the sale, specifically states that the amber hued-spirit is no longer safe for human consumption.

Commercial diver George Currie located the wreck, along with a sliver of its 28,000 cases of whiskey, in 1987, when he and a team working on a subsea cable repair project decided to look for the lost ship in their free time, according to George Mair of Scottish newspaper the Daily Record.

Of the five bottles found on this underwater expedition, Currie kept just one. As he tells the Daily Record, he’d so often regaled family and friends with tales of the bottle’s origin that he decided it was time to bequeath the artifact to a new owner.

The lot, which includes a bottle of whiskey, a diving helmet and bricks from the cargo ship, is predicted to sell for a hefty sum approaching $20,000, reports Brad Japhe for Forbes. Bidding closes Monday at 4 p.m. Eastern time.

Map of S.S. Politician wreck's location
A map of the S.S. Politician wreck's location (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Politician ran aground on a sandbar near the island of Eriskay on February 5, 1941. At the time, it was transporting 264,000 bottles of whiskey, as well as an array of goods including cotton and biscuits, to Jamaica and New Orleans.

When the ship sank, locals launched a series of unauthorized salvage operations, prompting a cat-and-mouse game between government officials and those seeking to enjoy some of the foundering ship’s precious liquid cargo. The ensuing hijinks inspired Compton Mackenzie’s 1947 novel Whisky Galore!, which was adapted on the silver screen in 1949 and 2016.

Authorities viewed efforts to retrieve the Politician’s whiskey as looting because no duty had been paid on the ship’s contents, while the Scots, who had been deprived of the finer things by wartime rationing, saw their actions as justified under the “rules of salvage,” reported Richard Woodard for Scotch Whisky magazine in 2016. In a final attempt to thwart further thievery, the government detonated the ship’s hull, sending its contents further into the deep. (Currie tells Atlas Obscura’s Matthew Taub that he never expected to find an intact container, as this blasting was designed “to smash all the bottles.”)

Speaking with Grace Hauck of USA Today, Jane Manson, director of the Grand Whisky Auction, says that that a pair of bottles recovered from the wreck sold for almost $16,000 in 2013.

“It is rare to recover a bottle from the wreck that has not been destroyed by the tides and the passage of time,” she adds. “It is a stunning piece of whiskey history.”

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