Author Joanna Davis Illustration Graham Roumieu
To a whisky lover like Michael Milne, one particular exhibit at Christchurch’s Canterbury Museum trumps all others. Strolling past the museum’s Antarctic collection, Milne approaches a sterile-looking temperature-controlled room. He peers through the window at 11 straw- covered bottles of Scotch sitting in individual drying hammocks. Milne’s heart, he says, “skips three beats.”
The bottles-each containing 114-year-old Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky-are undergoing a controlled thaw. Just months before, three crates of the stuff were exhumed from the permafrost beneath legendary explorer Ernest Shackleton’s hut in Antarctica. The distinctive smell and sounds of sloshing raised hopes worldwide that Antarctica’s year-round sub-subzero temperatures had preserved the whisky perfectly. “I could smell wood and salt and sea and just a faint whiff of whisky,” says Milne, a whisky broker who was there when the crates were transferred to the museum. “It sent a wee shiver down the spine.”
The crates were stashed during Shackleton’s 1908 Nimrod expedition, along with 2,500 cases of supplies-including somewhat less enticing items such as tinned mutton and concentrated egg powder-carried in via boat by Shackleton’s crew.
Master blender Richard Paterson, who works for Whyte & Mackay, the new owners of the Mackinlay’s brand, says it would be the highlight of his career to “nose,” analyze and copy the whisky. He suspects it might be “something of a very high quality,” but he can’t be certain yet. The original recipe is long lost.
Staring through the glass at the museum, Milne regrets he won’t get to taste the whisky. Samples may be extracted for analysis, but the bottles will eventually be returned to Antarctica for posterity.