Spirits of the South Pole

By Charles McGrath

Aboard the Nimrod, from left, Frank Wild, Ernest Shackleton, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams. Royal Geographical Society

“It’s daft,” a man settled in a Glasgow pub said to me not long ago, talking about the sums that rare Scotch whiskies sometimes fetch at auction — the bottle of Dalmore 64-year-old, for example, that sold last month for nearly $200,000. “If you pay that much, you canna drink it, and wha’s the use a just lookin’ at the bottle?”

But just as there are wine geeks, there are people who get carried away over Scotch. The rituals are the same — the swirling, the sniffing, the mouth sluicing — and so is much of the vocabulary. Hint of pear, cinnamon, crushed almonds, marzipan; whiff of tobacco, leaf-smoke, moist leather. Geography matters for whisky just as much as for wine. Not only are the products of Scotland’s main whisky-making regions — Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown — characteristically distinct, but even whiskies from distilleries just a couple of miles apart can taste vastly different. This one is sweet and grassy, with a hint of barn straw and damp car seat; that one smoky and peaty, with notes of dried moss and wet sheepdog. There are no vintages for whisky — the distiller’s aim is a product that is consistent from year to year — and once bottled, whisky doesn’t age. But before bottling, it does age in the cask, taking on flavor from the wood and the bourbon or sherry that used to be stored there. So as with wine, older is generally better, and whisky collectors regularly shell out huge sums for rare bottles.

For $160 or so, collectors in America will shortly be able to buy, nestled in a little crate made in China to look authentically Scottish, not a rarity, exactly, but a replica of one: whisky fabricated to resemble the whisky that the explorer Ernest Shackleton took with him to the Antarctic so long ago that people had forgotten all about it. In February 2007, workers trying to restore Shackleton’s hut there accidentally came across three cases of Scotch — “Rare old Highland malt whisky, blended and bottled by Chas. Mackinlay & Co.” — frozen in the permafrost. The labels on the whisky say it was intended for what Shackleton was planning to call the Endurance expedition but ended up being known as the Nimrod expedition of 1907, which was the earlier and lesser-known of his two great journeys but the more successful. He actually got to within about 100 miles of the South Pole, farther south than anyone had gone previously.

Shackleton would have loved the idea of a replica whisky. An improvident man, always in debt, he was partial to get-rich-quick schemes, including a Hungarian gold mine. By today’s standards, he was an unlikely explorer, with little scientific training or interest. He wasn’t even particularly enthralled by snow and ice. What motivated him was the lure of fame and wealth, and exploration was the best way he knew to get them. Shackleton’s great gift was his personality. He was irresistibly charming, especially to women, and for his time — he was born in 1874 — was a highly advanced adulterer, who liked sharing his girlfriends with their husbands. Men adored him, too, in part because he ignored social hierarchy and treated everyone the same. He was an instinctive, natural leader who somehow inspired others to share impossible hardships with him.

The whole Nimrod expedition was almost comically ill equipped, partly because it was underfinanced but also because of Shackleton’s stubbornness. He believed in doing things the hard way — in manly, British fashion. Norwegian explorers like Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen had already demonstrated that the best way to get around in the polar regions was to use cross-country skis and to have sled dogs pull the supplies. Shackleton had skis, but neither he nor anyone on his team could be bothered to really learn how to use them. Robert Scott, whose 1901 Discovery expedition included Shackleton, detested dogs, because they had the ungentlemanly habit of eating their own excrement, and Shackleton seems to have inherited the prejudice. For the Nimrod expedition, he took along Manchurian ponies, who sank in the snow up to their bellies and proved more useful as food than as transport, and a motorcar, which repeatedly became stuck in the drifts. For most of the journey, he and his men pulled their own sledges, as Scott’s team had, sometimes trudging through waist-deep snow.

One of three bottles of Shackleton's whisky recently used to create a replica blend. Raphaël Dallaporta for The New York Times

There was no fresh fruit or vegetables, but in all there were 25 cases of whisky — for warmth and a little perk-up, presumably — along with 12 of brandy and 6 of port. They were a hard-drinking crowd. The excellent and helpful “Shackleton,” by Roland Huntford, describes how at a midwinter Christmas party in June 1908, the men wore paper hats and funny noses; Alistair Mackay, the second surgeon, passed out after drinking two-thirds of a bottle of whisky; another of the team, Frank Wild, got moody and tried to pick a fight, as he tended to do. Shackleton himself liked to pull a cork, and heavy drinking and smoking may account for his death of a heart attack at age 47.

Why was the whisky found under the hut and not inside with the other rations? One theory is that Shackleton himself put it there in the fall of 1908, before setting off for the pole, in anticipation of a victory celebration when he returned. But the fact that one case was found pried open, with a bottle missing, suggests that the whisky there may have been someone’s secret stash. Wild, who was known to have a drinking problem, is a possible candidate.

Whisky lovers also like to imagine that the occasional bracing, restorative tot helped Shackleton and his three companions — Wild, Eric Marshall and Jameson Adams — withstand the hardship of their 1,700-mile trek south and back. On Christmas Day, we know, they celebrated with crème de menthe. It’s unlikely, though, especially on the return leg, when exhausted and malnourished and racing to get back before the Nimrod left, that they would have wanted the burden of whisky bottles. What really got them through was cocaine — in the form of pills called Forced March, which at one point Marshall fed the group every hour or so.

Shackleton thought that the trip to the South Pole and back would take about 90 days, but in the end he was gone for 122, most of them miserable. They left in late October, and by January it was clear that though they might reach the pole, it was very unlikely they would return alive. After making one last, desperate push, Shackleton reluctantly turned back for the hut on Jan. 9. “A live donkey is better than a dead lion,” he later told his wife. By the end they were on half rations and barely made it. Shackleton, who disliked wearing goggles, suffered agonies from snowblindness. All the men developed dysentery, Wild worst of all, most likely from eating tainted pony meat. When supplies ran low Shackleton characteristically gave him his own share. “By God, I shall never forget,” Wild wrote. “Thousands of pounds would not have bought that one biscuit.”

When the four got back to the hut, they were barely recognizable. These were all men in their 20s and 30s, and yet in a famous photograph taken onboard the Nimrod, they look ancient, weather-worn and leathery, almost like those prehistoric bodies dug up from peat bogs. A good stiff drink right then would have knocked them flat.

Cape Royds, on the western end of Ross Island, where Shackleton’s team erected their hut, is not exactly a tourist destination. But it’s close enough to the McMurdo scientific station that for years people would wander over and help themselves to souvenirs from the trove of stuff the explorers left behind in March 1909, when encroaching ice forced the expedition to sail for home. Since 1990 the site has been controlled by the Antarctic Heritage Trust, a New Zealand-based organization, which oversees it the way the Vatican oversees the tomb of St. Peter: nothing can be touched or moved. After lengthy negotiations, though, the whisky cases were finally chiseled out of the ice in early 2010 and one was taken to Christchurch, New Zealand, where it was thawed out and opened. In January of this year, three bottles, secured in little Styrofoam cradles, were allowed to return — temporarily — to Scotland for study and analysis. The whisky-obsessed likened the find to Howard Carter’s stumbling into the tomb of Tutankhamen. Scotch this old is a great scarcity, but what kind of shape was it in? Had it been preserved in the subzero cold — mummified, in effect — or had it gone bad, picking up notes of blubber, mildewed seal skin and dried penguin dung?

The Nimrod during the British Antarctic Expedition of 1907-9.
Royal Geographical Society

Most people I talked to in Glasgow were sure the stuff had spoiled, like antique wines you read about that prove to be vinegar when opened. Glasgow is one of the world’s greatest and most hospitable drinking cities, even if the local dialect is often incomprehensible. (Groundskeeper Willie from “The Simpsons” is almost certainly from Glasgow, unless he’s from Aberdeen, where the accent is even harder to understand.) But in my experience, it’s not necessarily a great whisky-drinking city. I witnessed copious imbibing but mostly of the let’s-get-hammered-as fast-as-we-can variety. Even at the Pot Still, a famous whisky pub with hundreds of single malts displayed on shelves like treasures in a museum, people were tossing back pints of beer or else concoctions made with vodka, which these days outsells whisky in Scotland, I was told by someone in the spirits industry. The bartender explained that I turned up too early. “Whisky is for the endgame,” he said.

I finally encountered a pair of whisky drinkers — Billy and Mike, they said their names were — at the Scotia Bar, a low-ceilinged room with varnished rafters that is Glasgow’s oldest pub. As a prophylactic measure, they were drinking their Scotch mixed with Irn-Bru — Scotland’s other national drink, a sweetish, orangey soft drink that is said to be a miraculous hangover cure. Like almost everyone else I talked to, they had heard of the Shackleton whisky, but they, too, doubted whether after all these years it could possibly be drinkable. Hospitably, and because of my supposed resemblance to Donald Dewar, a Scottish Labour Party politician who became the first minister of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and whose statue is at the end of nearby Buchanan Street, they insisted on buying me drinks. “Ye look just like him, the spitting image,” Billy said. “The only difference is yer nae green from standing out in the weather.”

Fermentation, even to the layman, is not much of a mystery. It starts sometimes by accident, even in the refrigerator if you leave stuff there too long. But distillation — the process of turning fermented liquid into vapor and then cooling it down into droplets of pure, clear spirit — seems altogether more magical. For centuries the process was a closely guarded secret, and even today the stills used to make malt whiskey — giant copper vessels shaped like onions — look like something an alchemist might use. The word “whiskey” comes from a Gaelic word meaning “water of life,” and in its early stages, whiskey literally breathes — or exhales, anyway. If you visit a distillery and look carefully, you’ll see that some of the outside walls and even the nearby trees are covered with thick black mold, the result of whiskey vapor escaping from the casks — what distillers call the “angels’ share.”

If the stuff does that to trees, what does it do to your insides? Better not to dwell on that. So alone in your den — why not call it your hut? — with glass in hand, you think, What the heck, and take a sip. Notes of clove, hint of honey, whiff of iodine and then the familiar warming glow kicks in and you start to feel better about nearly anything. Another wee dram? Why not? One more and you could even get a little misty, thinking about old Donald Dewar out there in the rain. Poor bastard, he could use a drink. And heroic Shackleton, shivering in the Antarctic night and wondering what on earth he got himself into. If only he were here right now, he could enjoy all the fuss and help himself to a glass of almost the real thing.

Mackinlay whisky stopped being made in significant quantities about five years ago. The brand is now owned by Whyte & Mackay, a venerable Glasgow firm founded in the late 19th century by two lavishly mustachioed gents who both died of cirrhosis. (Alcoholism is, or used to be, an occupational hazard in the whiskey industry, especially in the pre-1970 days of “dramming,” when distillery workers were allowed three hefty rations of newly distilled, undiluted spirit a day, the first at 7 in the morning.) Starting in the 1970s, as part of the worldwide consolidation of the spirits business, Whyte & Mackay was sold to one conglomerate after another, and in 2007 the firm was acquired by Vijay Mallya, an Indian billionaire and beer baron. The employees of Whyte & Mackay punctiliously refer to him as Doctor, even though Mallya’s doctorate, an honorary one, is from California Southern University, an institution that dispenses its learning online. In India, Mallya — who also runs an airline and owns a cricket team, a Formula 1 racing team, a couple of soccer clubs, hundreds of vintage cars, a Scottish castle and Mohandas Gandhi’s spectacles, sandals and brass eating bowl — is known as the King of Good Times. He is a big, flamboyant man who likes to squire around beautiful women while wearing cowboy hats and diamond earrings. Some observers thought he wildly overpaid for Whyte & Mackay, perhaps out of sentimentality, because Jura, one of the company’s brands, was his father’s favorite whisky. But Mallya insists that he knew exactly what he was doing: acquiring enough whisky supply to satisfy the Indian market, which he expects shortly to become the world’s largest. “I’m in the spirits business, and I wanted to ensure I had ample stock,” he told me, speaking on the phone from California. “No spirits-business line is complete without Scotch.”

Mallya was delighted to discover that he had a connection to the Shackleton whisky, and volunteered his private plane to ferry the bottles home. Swaddled in bubble wrap, the three bottles, still wrapped in the original green tissue paper, now moldering a little, traveled in two bright red coolers handcuffed to the wrists of Richard Paterson, Whyte & Mackay’s master blender. The cuffs were not strictly necessary, but Paterson, who has a theatrical streak, thought they were a nice touch.

The hut used by Shackleton and his crew. Photograph from Nzaht.org

Ostensibly, the main purpose of repatriating the bottles was scientific: Paterson and James Pryde, Whyte & Mackay’s chief chemist, were going to examine the whisky and taste it and analyze it, trying to determine where it was distilled and whether it was a true single malt or a blended whisky. From the beginning, though, everyone seems to have understood that it might be possible to make a few quid by replicating the Shackleton whisky, and Mallya was quite upfront about it. “Scotch has been represented as a mature man’s drink, a refined taste,” he said to me. “We’re looking to get some excitement going about Scotch in the younger generation, and the Shackleton whisky is a huge marketing peg. Look at fashion — everything is going retro these days.”

“Do that again and I’ll kill you,” Richard Paterson said after pouring me a glass of whisky. I had grabbed the glass by the bowl, and not the stem, thereby adding unwanted hand heat to the whisky’s breathing process. Paterson, a third-generation whisky man, is sometimes called the Nose, and indeed, his very formidable beak was once insured at Lloyd’s for $2.4 million. He likes to plunge it into a whiskey glass, take a long sniff and say things like “Hello!” and “How are you?”

Paterson is a snappy dresser — tailored suits, pocket squares, shirts with French cuffs — and an obsessive reciter of dates and historical factoids. He seems less like a whiskey-maker than a high-end perfumer, and much of his job consists of sniffing and mixing flasks, flagons and vials of amber-colored fluid in a glass-walled room that is part laboratory and part museum. The vogue for single-malt whisky — that is, whisky from a single distillery, made entirely from malted barley — is relatively new. Most of the Scotch sold today is blended whisky, a late-19th-century invention that combines malts with whiskies made from other grains to produce a drink that is lighter and less intense; and in quest of the ideal blend, Paterson might combine as many as seven grain whiskies and 20 or 30 different malts. He talks about blends the way a marriage counselor talks about couples needing to pay more attention to each other.

Paterson also takes whiskey drinking very seriously. The sight of someone dropping ice cubes into a whiskey glass or knocking back a shot without taking sufficient time to savor it makes him furious. The whisky he threatened to kill me over was not any old tipple, either, the kind of off-the-shelf Scotch suitable for mixing with Irn-Bru. This was the fabled stuff itself: a drop of the precious liter that he and James Pryde, forbidden from removing any corks, extracted from those hundred-year-old Antarctic bottles using long needles and what looked like a horse syringe. It was the very drink that Shackleton enjoyed.

We were in Fettercairn, a little distillery town roughly equidistant from Glasgow and Invergordon, where Pryde, a former biochemist and cell biologist, has his lab and where he and Paterson conducted their researches under sterile, top-secret conditions. Pryde had driven down with one of the red coolers containing one of the original bottles, which he and Paterson removed wearing white cotton gloves. Paterson also brought along a bottle of the replica whisky, on which he and Pryde tried to demonstrate their siphoning technique — not very successfully, because without telling them, the production department had installed a 21st-century cork with a plastic top.

The Shackleton whisky was surprisingly light in color; I expected something darker and more medicinal-looking. “When I saw how clear it was, that gave me a lot of confidence,” Paterson said. “That was a good sign it hadn’t spoiled.” If you want to keep whiskey for a century or so, it turns out that the best way to store it is on its side in subzero temperatures.

Bottles of Shackleton's whisky at the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, where they are being preserved in their paper wrapping and straw casing. Photograph from Nzaht.org

My hand now properly installed on the glass, I took a sip. It didn’t taste like medicine, and neither was it as peaty as I expected. Mild and fragrant, it was probably the best whisky I’ve ever drunk, though it’s also true that, with Paterson looking on, I had never tasted whisky so carefully, letting it linger on my tongue, rolling it underneath, holding it in my mouth and then exhaling deeply.

Paterson, who had by now helped himself to a dram, told me what I was experiencing. “It’s showing you a bouquet of fruit,” he said. “Crushed apples, peaches, hints of cinnamon, toffee, caramel, notes of sherry wood. But bloody hell — where’s the peat?” Like most everyone else, he explained, he assumed that 19th-century whisky taken to the Antarctic would be smoky and robust, the kind of drink that would give you a jolt and clear your head. Instead, the Shackleton malt was elegant and light — like a beautiful woman, Paterson said. He nosed the glass again. “This is a whisky with great charm, just like Shackleton, a great shagger of the ladies! He was a great man, but there was a soft side to him.”

Pryde, who except for his devotion to whisky is in most ways Paterson’s opposite, shy and soft-spoken, quietly amended this burst of biographical appreciation by saying, “I’m beginning to wonder if it wasn’t a response to the market.” Even in 1907, he explained, people were starting to turn away from heavy whiskies, and the tide didn’t really turn again until the ’60s, when smoky single malts began to be popular.

“We tend to think of our forefathers as stupid old people,” Paterson acknowledged. “But the forefathers really thought about what they were doing.”

Though coming from different ends of the spectrum, Paterson and Pryde were in complete agreement about the nature of the Shackleton whisky. Just about everything that Paterson sniffed — or intuited — turned out to be verifiable scientifically. Chemical analysis showed that it was a malt, not a grain, whisky, and a high concentration of furfuryl alcohol, together with what Pryde learned about the wood the whisky was aged in — sherry casks made of American white oak — indicated that most likely it was not a blend but a single whisky from a single distillery. All the signs pointed to Glen Mhor, a distillery, now out of business, that was owned by Mackinlay in the late 19th century. The water, Pryde deduced, was from Loch Ness, and he even figured out where the peat used to smoke the barley came from: the remote Orkney Islands. “That’s pretty special peat,” Paterson said.

Fortunately, some whisky from Glen Mhor was still around and became the base of the new, replicated Shackleton whisky, which is not a true single malt but an elaborate concoction of some two dozen different whiskies that Paterson mixed together mostly by trial and error, saying “Hello!” to this one, “Goodbye!” to that. The hardest part was getting the subtle peat notes, the ones that don’t pop up on first sniff, and for those he used whisky from the Dalmore distillery, 22 miles away from Glen Mhor.

How close is the replica to the original? Close enough that I certainly couldn’t tell the difference, especially after a couple of healthy snorts. Paradoxically, it’s actually more antique — or some of it is — than the real Shackleton whisky, which, frozen in time, is only 5 or 10 years old, strictly speaking, while some of the whiskies that make up the new version are as old as 25 years. And yet the new whisky is also a very modern and even an artificial artifact, the product of science and technology as much as of antiquarian connoisseurship. It’s like a CD that has been engineered to sound like vinyl. I couldn’t help thinking that Shackleton, with his penchant for doing things the hard way, might have been tempted to start from scratch — find some barley that more or less matched what Glen Mhor was using, dig up some peat from the Orkneys, run a hose to Loch Ness, mix up a wort, distill it and store in white oak sherry casks. “The problem with doing it that way,” Paterson said, “is that you’d have to wait 25 years to see if it worked.”

He took another swig of the original. “There you are! Hello, Mr. Peat! Hello, Mr. Smoke! Hello, Mr. Fruit! I’m Ernest Shackleton, and I’ve just come to the Antarctic. How do I feel? I feel on top of the world at the bottom of the world!”