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Friday, October 30, 2009

Preserved in ice for 100 years, the whisky Shackleton used to keep out the cold



Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton (above) abandoned two cases of whisky when he quit his Antartic hut (below)

Whisky bottle

Vintage: A MacKinlay's bottle of the same age

They say whisky matures with age...but leaving it embedded in the Antarctic ice for almost 100 years may be going a bit far.

Two cases of MacKinlay's Rare Old Whisky that Ernest Shackleton's team abandoned on their failed 1908 expedition to the South Pole have been uncovered intact.

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The pine cases were discovered by a conservation team excavating ice from beneath the hut where Shackleton and his men sheltered from the long, savage winter. They showed almost no damage from the ice and the company's stag's head logo is clearly visible.

"It was a magic moment," said Al Fastier, the New Zealander managing the conservation programme at Cape Royds on Antarctica's Ross Island. "It's a very exciting find."

Shackleton built the hut in January 1908 to provide a base for his attempt to become the first person to reach the South Pole. He and his 14 crew members spent nine months in the hut as temperatures plunged to -58F (-50C).

They were sustained by supplies which included 1,600lb of Yorkshire ham, 100lb of Colman's mustard, hundreds of packs of Huntley & Palmers biscuits and copious tins of Lyle's Golden Syrup.

As for the whisky, MacKinlay's was a family distilling company based in Leith, Edinburgh. When Shackleton approached MacKinlay's in 1907, it readily agreed to act as the expedition's official whisky supplier, and the firm - now part of distillers Whyte and Mackay - still has the letter from Shackleton confirming the donation.

MacKinlay's provided 12 cases, and empty bottles have previously been found on Shackleton's desk at Cape Royds - but the new find is the first untouched alcohol to be discovered.

Shackleton and three companions set off for the Pole when spring arrived in late October. After an epic four-month trek, they fell just 98 miles short of their goal.

They left the Cape Royds hut on March 3, 1909, leaving behind surplus supplies as they rushed to get away before the winter ice closed around their ship.

"In light of this, it's not surprising that two cases of whisky were overlooked," said Martin Williams of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, which is endeavouring to preserve Shackleton's hut.

The conservation team had decided to remove the ice to make sure the hut's foundations were stable and to reduce humidity inside.

They have previously discovered an undershirt bearing the name Bertram Armytage - a member of Shackleton's team - as well as boots still lined with straw to boost insulation, an intact dog harness and crates of matches.

The cases of whisky have been left in the hut where they were found. If removed, Fastier explained, they could be damaged - and many experts feel such artefacts should remain in situ.

But surely one of the conservation team has been tempted to open a bottle?

"No," said Fastier. "It's better to imagine it than to taste it. That way it keeps its mystery."