Shackleton’s Whisky

1st January 1908: Nimrod Expedition sets off to Antarctica to reach the South Pole. There were two main expeditions headed to Antartica at the same time and the rivalry between them was, simultaneously polite, good natured and fierce. Shackleton had been warned by Scott not to touch his piece of land, that research there was forbidden and to land there a serious contravention – weather and emergencies forced them to land here and head towards the South Pole. They never made it: bad weather and the encroaching winter ice forcing them back. The return to the ship was just as harrowing – making it by the skin of their teeth had meant jettisoning rations and equipment deemed unnecessary, most seriously, three cases of Mckinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky.

Antarctica is probably more perilous than this....

In January 2006 these cases were located below Shckleton’s hut and were successfully and carefully excavated in 2010. They were then thawed delicately by specialists in Christchurch, New Zealand. White and Mackay’s owner (who purchased Mckinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt in 1995) flew a case back to Glasgow (precisely how much was flown back differs from source to source) to let Master Blender Richard Paterson (The Nose) pull the blend figuratively apart and piece it back together.

This is an old story. It has been released for a little over a year and the limited stock (is 50,000 bottles limited…?) was expected to have vanished utterly, very quickly indeed. Yet, as I write this, Shackleton’s whisky is still found easily, still being advertised at whisky shows and seems to be still very much with us. Why has it not all been snapped up? Glenfiddich’s Snow Pheonix, a similarly limited release (no official figure has been given, but i’ve seen anywhere u to 60,000 bottles being quoted), at roughly the same time, is almost entirely sold out and now the few bottles that are left are selling at the same price. It can hardly be said there was not enough coverage for Shackleton’s whisky – the finding of the whiskies was international news and White and Mackay did superbly to make sure that their intention to recreate the whisky was covered almost everywhere. As has been mentioned in passing in other blogs, and only really talked about in the press by the Guardian, Mckinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt went out of business. It has been suggested by Richard Paterson that this was the superlative whisky of its age. If that were truly so, how did it fail the first time and why has it failed to sell again this time?

I would dearly love to have an easy answer for you. I had an opportunity to try this whisky at Whisky Live London 2012, and expected to be horrified by the “old fashioned” taste, since they preferred far less peppery, far more smoky whiskies at the turn of the last century. I thought this may lie behind the poor sales. But, truth be told, it was very pleasant. It was smoky, but not overpoweringly so, it had a good sense of depth and complexity and a wonderful finish. It is a stylish package, with the original bottle recreated, a wooden case packed with straw, an ideal talking point.

And there’s the rub. This is a whisky for talking about, for waxing lyrical over the difficulties of extracting and thawing the cases, for discussing the possibilities of what you might have left behind or which crew member might be sacrificed in the name of the whisky. It doesn’t feel like a whisky for drinking. If it weren’t a limited release, it would be more likely to be drunk but the nature of the release, given the very limited nature of the remaining original, means it seems a shame to waste this heirloom by drinking it. So the main buyers seem to be people wanting a point of discussion at the dinner table. I saw a ham in the food halls of Harrods once for £150 per 100g. I cannot believe the flavour is over fifty times as great as Serrano ham from Waitrose but it came with a story of pigs raised on mountainsides, ham aged in hazel shacks on wooded hills, fresh air imbibing the ham with a taste of freedom. The story was where the price lay and the story is the sticking point with the Shackleton whisky – it’s just too good a story to waste!

colour: pale straw
nose: coffee, delicate smoke, lighter than I expected, smooth
body: easy and clean
palate: complex – spices abound throughout, pepper, nutmeg, perhaps capers? Definitely something very savoury contrasting to the sweeter fruitiness and smoke.
finish: long and warm, smoke soon evaporates, but caramel remains for some time.
overall: Massive mix of flavours results in no one note being too distinctive, although remains very, very drinkable.

2 thoughts on “Shackleton’s Whisky”

  1. I managed to secure a sample of this whisky from a NYC PR firm a couple months ago. When a product is hyped this much, my first instinct is to hate it, so when I finally got around to tasting it, I was pleasantly surprised by how subtle and flavorful a whisky it truly is. I really enjoyed it. But would I pay upwards of $150 for it? I doubt it. Then again…. can you really put a price on a whisky that has such a great back story?

    Great post and of course, beautiful phoography! Love the Amazon Man in the Antarctic shot! Genius.

    Cheers!
    G-LO

    1. Glad you appreciated the photos – I suspect true Antarctic conditions are slightly harsher than Danbo had to endure, but hey! I had the same feeling towards this, especially when I saw it wasn’t selling, but it is surprisingly good – have recommended it to a few people now, and the story really is worth it!

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