Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 job advert makes even a zero hours contract at Sports Direct seem okay.
In 2013, Tim Jarvis and five others successfully recreated the epic crossing of the Southern Ocean in a replica of Shackleton’s boat. They used the same materials, clothing, food and Thomas Mercer chronometer. The sea voyage was followed by a trek across the mountainous interior of South Georgia (which is of no relation to the unitary, semi-presidential republic, the Ray Charles song or sweet peaches). Shackleton was trying to save his men from Antarctica, Jarvis was trying to save Antarctica from men by raising global warming awareness.
Shackleton's journey to the Antarctic was made all-the-more hazardous because he refused to use sled dogs, dogs having the rather ungentlemanly habit of eating their own faeces. Instead, he opted for ponies, animals traditionally associated with children’s birthday parties. He brought a motorcar, but it proved impractical because of the lack of petrol stations. Shackleton had skis, but unfortunately he and his men had only ever been to Courchevel where they spent most of their time in the bar drinking hot chocolate trying to meet women. Shackleton didn’t actually know how to ski. We at TopWhiskies take our dual role as whisky reviewers and historians seriously.
Shackleton had the shopping list of a teenager left home alone for a weekend; he was just missing frozen pizza, which would have been easily arranged. He didn’t have fresh fruit or vegetables, but he brought 25 cases of whisky (along with 12 cases of brandy and 6 cases of port). At Christmas, 1908, Alistair Mackay, the second surgeon, passed out after drinking two-thirds a bottle of whisky and Frank Wild picked a fight with a fellow explorer. They had paper hats and funny noses at the party, but didn’t have waterproof clothing. What would Christmas have been without paper hats? To his credit, Shackleton was a great leader and knew it was important to create a sense of comradery and to keep the sprits up. Because of Shackleton leadership and, what today we’d call his high emotional intelligence today, he and his men survived the adventure. Just goes to show you the power of a Christmas cracker.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. With all due respect to Mr Einstein sailing in freezing water in a boat the size of a dinner table with no keel, even with the expectation of survival, sounds nuts. Unsurprisingly, Jarvis and the team were contractually obligated to drink whisky on the journey (page 8 of their contract, in fact). Given the size of the boat and the hundred-foot waves, the success of the entire expedition might well have been down to a bit of Dutch courage. But Jarvis wasn’t drinking just any whisky. He was drinking Shackleton’s whisky, or at least something that tasted like it.
Tutankhamen’s tomb is a mere trinket shop, and the Titanic a rusty bucket, compared to the three cases of Mackinlay whisky the Antarctic Heritage Trust found hidden under the floorboards in Shackleton’s hut. Mackinlay stopped making whisky in large quantities a few years ago and the brand is now part of Whyte & Mackay. Untouched and frozen for over a century, the only question was whether the Artic ice had imparted notes of walrus blubber and penguin poo into the malt. And so Richard Paterson flew from New Zealand to Scotland manacled to bright red coolers with three bottles of Shackleton’s whisky - ready to set his nose to the challenge. Paterson, a lavishly moustachioed man with a flare for the theatrical, is Whyte & Mackay’s master blender. His nose was once insured at Lloyd’s of London for $2.4 million and he likes to stick it into whisky glasses and say things like: ‘hello’ and ‘how are you?’. TopWhiskies could not make this stuff up.
Ostensibly, the purpose of repatriating the bottles was scientific. Paterson was going to determine where Shackleton’s whisky was distilled and if it was a single or blended malt. But what he really wanted to do was try to recreate it. Chemical analysis showed the Shackleton’s whisky was a malt, not a grain, whisky and was aged in sherry casks of American white oak. It was most likely from Glen Mhor, a now defunct distillery that was owned by Mackinlay in the late 19th century. The water was from Loch Ness and the peat used to smoke the barley came from Orkney. Fortunately there was still some Glen Mhor around and Paterson blended it with Dalmore (among others) to create an approximation that you can pick up for about £150, if you can find it. Whyte & Mackay released a second version that comes wrapped in straw and is a blend of Glenfarclas, Mannochmore, Tamnavulin, Ben Nevis, Aultmore, Fettercairn, Pulteney and Jura; this one is a lot easier to find and retails for about £100. But they’ve now released a version of Shakleton’s whisky for everyone with a sense of adventure that doesn’t require a boundless wallet. At £40 and 40% (the original was 47%), Shackleton is a blend of highland malts that’s accessible to the market and adjusted for a modern palate.
Nose: A rucksack with Granny Smith apples, fresh baked banana bread and ginger cake wrapped in cling film.
Mouth: Crusty bread and biscuits, the kind you’d give your friends and couldn’t be bought for thousands of pounds.
Throat: Hot mulled wine poured from a battered steel thermos.
You’d have to have been a little crazy to sign up to explore Antarctica on a wooden ship, and you’d assume that the whisky you’d take would be smoky and robust, something to jolt the body and jar the senses. But Shackleton’s whisky is elegant and light, like a woman in a chiffon ball gown. It was a product of it’s time, in 1907 people were turning away from heavy whisky and peat and smoke wouldn’t be back in vogue until the 1960’s. Shackleton Whisky is engineered to be a product of our time: inspired by past adventures, it’s an intrepid drink with a soft side; much like the great man himself.
4/5 – Buy a bottle of it because alcohol can be a man’s worst enemy and the bible says love your enemy.