This all but lost “rare old” recipe for blended Scotch whisky is a tale of two expeditions—one to bring it to its frozen resting place beneath the floor boards of the base hut located at Cape Royds, Antarctica, and a second one to recover it from there. Ernest Shackleton was one of the great explorers of his age and was able to secure not only funding for the 1907 Nimrod Expedition to the South Pole (provided in part by Edward Guinness of the Irish brewing family), but also provisions of whisky from the Mackinlay blending company plus quite a bit of brandy. Shackleton’s story of adventure, strife, discovery, and leadership (and boozing) has been recounted much lately, and so here I’ll focus on the results of the expedition undertaken by Al Fastier and his team from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust to examine and conserve the 33x19 ft. Cape Royds base hut. They continued Shackleton’s story by unearthing (de-icing?) the crate containing 23 bottles of a style of blended scotch that was popular during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. But the story goes on from there…
While the histories of archaeology and whisky do have overlaps through time, rarely has there been such a clear and away and intruiging case of this as the discovery of Shackleton’s lost bottles. But because they are archaeological finds first and foremost (legally, anyway), their recovery was of potentially limited value to whisky drinkers— I mean, you can’t simply open, serve, and ingest an archaeological artifact. But maybe if you’re Richard Patterson, master blender at Whyte & Mackay, you can…. Under UNESCO international heritage law no artifactual find can be removed from its country of origin unless it is an approved sample for scientific purposes. Well, the Antarctic Heritage Trust responsible for the preservation of Antarctic material culture, based in New Zealand, worked with Whyte & Mackay (who became the owners of the Mackinlay brand) until they were able to reach a deal in which three of the artifacts in question could be treated as scientific samples.
And thus began a process similar to what can be termed ‘experimental archaeology.’ Generally, a researcher engaging in this approach to archaeology will find an artifact (or building, etc.) and attempt to duplicate it, using what they perceive to have been the tools and methods available to the ancients, and trial and error until the end product is identical (or nearly so) to the artifact. Thusly, this generates a better understanding of the ancient processes of production (and so, the true end result is not the duplication, but the knowledge gained from achieveing it). With the Mackinlay’s bottles, Richard Patterson and his crack team may have been interested in discovering the nuanced differences between whisky production a hundred years ago and today…
But the true end goal here was to create what is certainly no longer available— the early 20th century Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky that Ernest Shackleton provided to his expedition and stored beneath the floor of his base hut. Ten of the eleven bottles that the conservation team thawed in New Zealand were perfectly intact, enabling Patterson’s team to engage in an effective combination of laboratory, visual, and olefactory analyses.
By looking at the “cask extractives” present in the liquid Patterson was able to determine that Mackinlay’s aged the scotch in sherry-seasoned, American white oak casks. Through the chemical components of the phenols present the lab team discovered that the peat was cut from bogs in the Orkney Islands (home to the Highland Park distillery). In order to reproduce the flavours and aromas detectable in the original spirit, Whyte & Mackay blended various Highland and Speyside malts such as Glen Mor and Dalmore, as well as several others, that had been aged anywhere from 8 to 30 years. I’ve heard that the very lucky few who were able to taste the original(!), such as Dave Broom, have indicated that the replica does indeed live up to Shackleton’s own.
Both stories go on well past this point, and I implore everyone to delve further into both of them as well as other experimental booze recreations (such as Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, for instance). But it’s time to raise a glass and taste some history. We’d like to thank the good people at Whyte & Mackay for providing the sample, but also Matt and Karen at WhiskyForEveryone for going through all the trouble to send it from the UK to sweet home Chicago. Cheers guys.
Color: Pinot Grigio
Legs: average; slow but oddly big for the abv.
Nose: creamy and musty, with fleshy plums, white chocolate, sweet peat, ferns or moss, a little pepper, and distinct lemony notes. Water brings out some floral notes.
Palate: orange pulp, toasted malt, spices (white pepper), a good bit of peat ember, and maybe a hint of lavendar. Smoky.
Body: substantial, sweaty, and weighty.
Finish: medium or more, with sweet roasted peanuts and semi-sweet chocolate chips.
Overall: As Matt (of WFE) mentioned to me, it stands up on its own, but it’s the story/ies of its recovery and recreation that set this historical recipe apart. But with a second tasting I gotta say that I really kinda like this thing, and I wish I had a full bottle. It’s interesting and exciting, but it also intrigues and satisfies with a citrus-and-smoky combination that highlights a fairly complex dram. Good work all around, in my opinion.
Other Opinions: As this is a blend of several Highland and Speyside single malts, there’s enough going on to give everyone plenty to write about. But the weighty, smoky style that Patterson recreated is apparent to all.
- Domonic Roskrow, at Malt Advocate, likes the lemony, smoky nose and the full, citrusy, peaty, and peppery palate, giving it a 92.
- The Whisky Boys give it 4 out of 5 “corks,” citing the fruit, smoke, vanilla nougat, a bit of chocolate, and “a touch of pepper.”
- Gal at Whisky Israel calls the crisp apple, toffee, smoked leaves, and “apricots dipped in rose water” on the nose with a powerful, smoky, and fruity palate of tea leaves with prunes and dark chocolate “splendid stuff.”
- Yossi at the JSMWS sees a Springbank mixed with bourbon-aged Port Ellen and finds it “well balanced, composed and thoroughly delicious.”
- And finally, our comrade in blogging, who made this post possible, Matt at WhiskyForEveryone does a masterful job (as usual) bringing you up to speed about the background of the original Mackinlay’s blend. He gets a lot out of this replica, giving the nose a moment to unveil layers of vanilla, butterscotch, green and tropical fruits, walnuts, burnt sugar, musty peat smoke, et al. Then for the palate Matt notes a tangy sweetness followed by creamy richness and then peat smoke and wood spice. ”A good dram in its own right.” I’m starting see the walnut really come through on the nose, now that you mention it.