SCOTTBASE, Antarctica – Talk about whisky on ice: Three bottles of rare, 19th century Scotch found beneath the floor boards of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackelton’s abandoned expedition base were returned to the polar continent Saturday after a distiller flew them to Scotland to recreate the long-lost recipe.
But not even New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who personally returned the stash, got a taste of the contents of the bottles of Mackinlay’s whisky, which were rediscovered 102 years after the explorer was forced to leave them behind.
“I think we’re all tempted to crack it open and have a little drink ourselves now,” Key joked at a ceremony handing over the bottles to Antarctic Heritage Trust officials at New Zealand’s Antarctic base on Ross Island.
The whisky will be transferred by March from Ross Island to Shackelton’s desolate hut at Cape Royds and replaced beneath the restored hut as part of a program to protect the legacy of the so-called heroic era of Antarctic exploration from 1898 to 1915.
Bottled in 1898 after the blend was aged 15 years, the Mackinlay bottles were among three crates of Scotch and two of brandy buried beneath a basic hut Shackleton had used during his dramatic 1907 Nimrod excursion to the Antarctic. The expedition failed to reach the South Pole but set a record at the time for reaching the farthest southern latitude. Shackelton was knighted after his return to Great Britain.
Shackelton’s stash was discovered frozen in ice by conservationists in 2010. The crates were frozen solid after more than a century beneath the Antarctic surface.
But the bottles were found intact — and researchers could hear the whisky sloshing around inside. Antarctica’s minus 22 Fahrenheit (-30 Celsius) temperature was not enough to freeze the liquor.
The bottles remained unopened as they were returned Saturday — if Shackelton couldn’t have a dram, no one could — but their contents nevertheless formed the basis for a revival of the blend.
Distiller Whyte & Mackay, which now owns the Mackinlay brand, chartered a private jet to take the bottles from the Antarctic operations headquarters in the New Zealand city of Christchurch to Scotland for analysis in 2011.
The recipe for the whisky had been lost. But Whyte & Mackay recreated a limited edition of 50,000 bottles from a sample drawn with a syringe through a cork of one of the bottles. The conservation work of the Antarctic Heritage Trust has received 5 British pounds for every bottle sold.
The original bottles had flown in two combination-locked containers with Key to Antarctica in a U.S. Air Force transport plane from Christchurch on Friday.
Antarctic Heritage Trust manager Lizzie Meek, who was part of the team that found the whisky, recalled its pleasant aroma.
“When you’re used to working around things in that hut that perhaps are quite decayed and some of them don’t have very nice smells, it’s very nice to work with artifacts that have such a lovely aroma,” Meek told the ceremony by radio from explorer Robert Scott’s Antarctic hut which she is restoring.
“And definitely the aroma of whisky was around very strongly.”