Thinking Drinkers: The Importance of Being Ernest

Whyte & Mackay has launched a Scotch in honour of legendary arctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton – a replica of the whisky he took with him to the bottom of the world, and famously left there for 100 years. 

Shackleton was the ultimate English heroic failure– a man who never accomplished what he set out to do, yet still inspired adoration and was, from the sounds of it, a fantastic fellow to enjoy a whisky with.

Shackleton was driven by infectious optimism, impulse and iron will. While these qualities made him a fine leader of men, they were not ideal partners to practical preparation. Others spent years planning before setting off for the South Pole, Shackleton set himself just seven months to cobble together everything – money, men, equipment, boat… the whole lot. 

Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian exploring oracle, was scared of what Shackleton was getting himself into so offered him some professional advice. Nansen strongly recommended Eskimo-style parkas complete with furs and a hood but Shackleton packed a string vest, several hats that he stuck on top of one another, and an old jacket that didn’t have a hood… but did have holes to let cold air in. Nansen also insisted sleigh dogs were essential in the Antarctic but Shackleton hated dogs and dogs hated him. 

So, instead, he took some Manchurian ponies. And an actual car. When Shackleton pushed both off the Nimrod ship on to the pack ice, the car sank into the snow and wouldn’t start while the ponies fell down crevices and, over time, either died or were eaten. Yet still, Shackleton somehow led his men to within 100 miles of the South Pole – and he did it with a drink in his hand. 

Shackleton was a former teetotaller who, while growing up, was a member of the Band of Hope, a teenage temperance movement. But as an explorer, he was acutely aware that alcohol was an essential. Not just for medicinal reasons, as a liquid layer against the cold, but also for its social skills, a crucial bonhomie catalyst that bonded 15 men stuck in a small, cold hut for nine months.

Shackleton left New Zealand with a tonne of liquor on board the Nimrod, along with some Forced March, pills largely composed of cocaine designed to energise and ward off snow blindness. He also took whisky. Three months prior to the expedition, the 33-year-old Shackleton ordered 25 cases (300 bottles) of 10-year-old Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt.  

Each case was labelled British Antarctic Expedition 1907 on one side while, on the other, in big black writing, were the unwittingly prescient descriptors rare” and “old”. No-one could have predicted that, after a century entombed in ice, three cases would be unearthed from beneath his Antarctic hut in 2006. 

Initial fears that the whisky had frozen were allayed by the soft sound of sloshing Scotch from within. It had been preserved partly by an ABV of 47.3% (at 40% it would have frozen) yet, still, it took four years to prize a single case from Cape Royds’ frosty fingers and a further eight months to fully thaw it out at a museum in Canterbury.

While Mackinlay’s recently-launched replica of the Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky is now widely available, very few people have tasted the real whisky, drawn from an uncorked antique bottle using a surgical syringe. If the newly released Shackleton is anything like the man himself, then expect a balanced blend, with some seriously strong legs, some Irish malt in there, a touch of tobacco smoke and seaweed, some light floral notes for the ladies and, obviously, a finish that isn’t quite as good as you’d hoped. Best served over ice. Naturally.  

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