CHICAGO — It may not seem like the most dynamic of museum exhibits: visitors stare through a glass pane at an inert, soggy wooden crate with a bit of straw poking out the top.
But the crate, which attracted TV crews when it went on display in Christchurch, New Zealand on July 21, is packed with an adventurous history — and perhaps a dozen bottles of a much-coveted Scotch whisky.
The crate belonged to famed polar explorer Ernest Shackleton. It’s one of three crates of whisky and two of brandy that were discovered entombed in ice under a small wooden hut he built a century ago in Antarctica during an attempt at the South Pole. The crates were first spotted in 2006, but conservators were only able to bring the special tools needed to painstakingly free them in February.
Antarctic Heritage Trust is the Christchurch nonprofit responsible for the upkeep of Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds as well as for two others nearby used by Shackleton and Robert F. Scott. Workers brought one crate of the Charles MacKinlay & Co. blended whisky off the continent to thaw and conserve under controlled conditions.
“People started saying, ‘Well this is exciting. Wouldn’t it be neat if people could see it?’” said Lizzie Meek, the person at the Anarctic Heritage Trust who has helped conserve many of the thousands of items in the huts, none of which have been done in front of the public before. The group teamed up with the Canterbury Museum to create the display.
“I don’t think that there’s a great deal of excitement standing around for many hours watching a crate thaw,” Meek acknowledged.
But nothing could be more exciting for Richard Paterson.
He’s the master blender at Whyte & Mackay, the Glasgow company that now owns MacKinlay. Paterson has been following the fate of the crates carefully and is anxious to know the condition of the bottles inside, and to get his hands on a dram of the spirit in order to recreate the lost 100-plus-year-old recipe. He’d do so by inserting a syringe through the cork to extract some of the whisky.
Conservators peeked through a loose slat in the crate and saw the top of what looks like an intact bottle. And they reported the sound of sloshing liquid when moving the crate. Whisky experts believe that since the whisky was kept chilled all these years it will likely be fairly true to the original flavor once thawed — assuming the seals stayed airtight during its Antarctic sojourn.
Gradually thawing the crates is not only best for the artifacts, but it’s also the correct way to warm the whisky, Paterson said.
“We cannot give the whisky a fright,” he said.
If there’s enough liquid inside the bottles to share with Paterson, Antarctic Heritage Trust will be happy to do so, said Nigel Watson, the group’s executive director. “We would be keen to see W+M replicate the original recipe commercially so everyone could share a taste of history,” he wrote in an email to GlobalPost.
The ultimate goal for the crate and its contents is to return them to the hut, which is preserved much as it looked the day Shackleton sailed away in 1909 after turning around about 97 miles short of the pole.
The one-foot tall, 1.5-foot wide crate is currently in a glass-fronted freezer where its temperature is gradually being raised from -4 degrees Fahrenheit to zero. At that point it will be moved to a small, 39-degree room in the museum with a window that allows visitors to peek inside while conservators examine the crate, bottles, corks and paper labels.
Meek expects the thawing to take less than a week. She wasn’t sure if the crate would stay on display after it’s fully examined. The museum has set up a blog and video of the crate for online fans.
The conservators are hoping to learn the best way to thaw the artifacts by watching what happens to the wood and contents in the highly controlled museum spaces. They’ll take that knowledge with them to Antarctica where they’ll work to conserve the other crates.
“Oftentimes conservators work behind the scenes,” Meek said. “It’s really a fantastic experience to be more involved with the public so that people can engage with their history.”
And, one hopes, to drink it.