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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Whisky, Buried in Antarctic Ice for 100 Years, is Finally Ready for You to Drink

By Eric Rogell

The original 100 year old Shackleton expedition whisky and the recreation (Photos: Whyte & Mackay Distillery)
A little ice in your whisky may open up the flavor and enhance the drinking experience, but having 100 years of ice on top of your whisky can mean “a gift from Heaven for whisky lovers.” At least that’s what Richard Paterson, Master Distiller and Blender at Whyte & Mackay, called it when a long lost case of rare whisky was uncovered in the Antarctic in 2009. Two years later, he’s painstakingly recreated that whisky so the rest of us can enjoy a glass.

Failed Expedition, Abandoned Whisky

Members of the failed Shackleton Antarctic expedition
In 1907, explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton set off for an Antarctic expedition to the South Pole. To fortify the men of the “Nimrod” during the long, cold journey, Shackleton ordered 25 cases of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt whisky with commemorative labels marking the whisky as specially selected for the “Endurance expedition.” (Shackleton had intended to rename the “Nimrod” as the “Endurance,” but never did.)

In 1909, three wooden crates containing the rare whisky were abandoned to an Antarctic winter after a failed attempt to reach the South Pole. Buried deep beneath the ice for over 100 years, a team from the New Zealand Antarctic Trust was able to recover a single crate.

Thawing 100 Years of Deep Freeze

After a flight to the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand for careful thawing and stabilization, the crate is slowly defrosted from -20 C to 0 C over a two week period. 10 bottles survived, still wrapped in their protective paper and straw, with the precious liquid inside perfectly intact.

Ten bottles survive
Three of those bottles are flown, on a private jet, to Scotland where it is delivered to the Whyte & Mackay distilleries, the owners of the Mackinlay brand, where it undergoes extensive scientific analysis so Paterson and his team can attempt to recreate it. They find the whisky’s strength at 47.3% alc/vol, that it contained peat from the Orkney Islands, and that it had been aged in American white oak sherry casks. (Look for a documentary on the entire recreation to air on the National Geographic Channel at the end of this year.)

Painstaking Recreation

Richard Paterson and one of the original bottles
Since average whisky lovers would be unable to get their hands on one the rarest bottles in history, Paterson took on the challenge of recreating the 100 year old Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt. “It was a real privilege getting to handle, nose, and taste such a rare and beautiful bottle of whisky,” he said.

Paterson spent weeks of blending and marrying malts from the Glen Mhor and Dalmore distilleries with others from Speyside and beyond, varying in age from eight to 30 years, to get it just right. The result is recreation that is a perfect duplicate of Shackleton’s original. They’ve even reproduced the original bottle and packaging to complete the experience. And drinking this whisky is definitely an experience. As you can imagine, being in a bottle for 100 years creates a light, mellow whisky that’s a joy to sip.

And you can experience it, if you get your hands on one of the 50,000 bottles that are in the limited run. Expect to pay about $160 per bottle for the privilege, with 5% of the proceeds going to the expedition’s Heritage Trust. To learn more, head over to