CHICAGO — Ernest Shackleton took more than six months to sail from England to Antarctica 103 years ago on his quest to reach the South Pole. In the hold of his ship, which braved both a steamy equatorial crossing and the buffeting of ice floes, were several crates of Scotch whisky.
This week, three bottles of that whisky got a much cushier ride back home.
A year after they were recovered from the frozen ground beneath Shackleton’s hut at Cape Royds, the bottles were flown by private jet back to Scotland for testing. The hope is that an analysis — both in a lab and by human nose and taste bud — will reveal enough of the spirit’s true taste that it can be recreated for whisky lovers and polar enthusiasts.
Richard Paterson is the master blender at Glasgow-based Whyte & Mackay, the company that now owns the distillery that made the whisky. Known in the business as “The Nose,” Paterson has been gushing at the thought of sampling some of the whisky, both because of its link to history and in order to puzzle apart what a blend of that era tasted like.
“It was a very poignant moment,” Patterson said about touching the bottles for the first time, in a video on the Whyte & Mackay website. “It was quite emotional, I have to be honest.”
He accompanied Whyte & Mackay owner Vijay Mallya on Mallya’s private plane to collect the three bottles, which will be returned to the group in charge of their conservation after the testing is finished.
“With such a rare and precious find, there are many conditions and safeguards put in place to protect the whisky,” Rob Bruce, head of global public relations for Whyte & Mackay, wrote in an email to GlobalPost. The company didn’t want the bottles put in the cargo hold of a plane, and because of rules that ban bringing liquids into the cabin of commercial jets, Mallya offered up his plane for the trip.
Paterson was handcuffed during the entire trip to the cherry red, hard-sided cases that protected the bottles, he said, until a Scottish customs agent made him detach himself. In the video, he holds up one of the brown bottles partially encased in a fragile-looking, yellowish paper wrapper.
The whisky, made by Charles MacKinlay & Co., was discovered five years ago when conservators removed a century’s worth of ice from under Shackleton’s hut and discovered the wooden crates buried inside. It took four more years to return to the site with the correct tools to carefully chip away at the ice and free the crates from the frozen black volcanic rock that makes up Cape Royds. In all, three crates of whisky and two of brandy were removed.
One of the whisky crates was taken to Christchurch, New Zealand last year to be thawed and examined by Antarctic Heritage Trust, the nonprofit group conserving the hut and the 5,000 artifacts inside. Shackleton and his men, who turned around tantalizingly close to their goal of the pole, left behind their gear and food stores when their relief ship arrived. The group also cares for two huts left behind in similar condition by Robert Falcon Scott.
The bottles arrived in Glasgow on Monday and went to the company’s laboratories in Invergordon the next day, Bruce said. Testing is expected to take about six weeks. Samples will be drawn with a syringe through the cork to preserve the bottles’ wrapping. The liquid will go through both scientific analysis, and tasting and nosing by Paterson.
He hopes that because the whisky was kept in the cold, it will have retained much of its flavor, which he suspects is heavier and peatier than today’s blends. Analysis will examine the malt, peat, toxins and metals in the whisky, as well as seek to determine the source and quality of its barley. This “fingerprint” of the drink will help Paterson learn about the distillation process of the late 19th century, when it was made.
Once testing is done, the bottles and remaining whisky will be sent back to New Zealand. By international law, all artifacts from the early explorers discovered in Antarctica must remain on the continent in their respective huts, which are maintained as museums for tourists lucky — and wealthy — enough to stop by, and for online sightseers who can view the huts on the Antarctic Heritage Trust website.
There is an exemption if it is safer for the artifacts to be removed from the huts. Executive Director Nigel Watson explained that the group will determine if it’s better for the bottles to stay in more temperate climes now that they’ve been thawed or if there’s a security risk in returning them to the hut.