The spirits game is a jungle nowadays. There are so many good new ones hitting liquor stores on a monthly basis that, in order to really make a splash, you need to have an angle. You can't just barrel-age your whiskey. It's got to be aged in barrels made from logs that were split by Abraham Lincoln. Your gin can't have just any old botanicals, it has to have wild juniper berries picked by trained endangered orangutans, and cardamom that's been blessed by Zoroastrian high priests.
So I'm not going to tell you about the new blended Scotch marketed by distillers Whyte & Mackay, tasty though it may be. No, I'm going to tell you about Shackleton's Scotch. That's Shackleton as in Sir Ernest Shackleton, explorer extraordinaire, whose stash of whisky was abandoned more than 100 years ago in the Antarctic permafrost, and was painstakingly excavated, analyzed and recreated for 21st century taste buds. Now that's an attention grabber!
And amazingly, it's a true story. During Shackleton's famed "Nimrod Expedition" to reach the South Pole, which began in 1907 and ended in 1909, a well-fortified hut was built as a base camp, using supplies brought from England. When the mission ended in failure, the hut was abandoned with most of the supplies still inside. The Antarctic being the Antarctic, the hut has been largely preserved to this day -- everything from newspapers to canned food, remarkably intact. And wouldn't you know it, underneath the floorboards of the hut, trapped in ice for a century, lay two crates of Mackinlay's Rare Old Highland Malt Scotch Whisky.
100-year-old canned pemmican (a sort of jerky made in part from penguin blubber) may not sound very enticing, even if it comes from the personal supply of one of the 20th century's most famous explorers. But perfectly preserved whisky? That's another story. By 2006, when the ultimate Scotch on the rocks was discovered by conservators, Mackinlay was defunct as a brand, but the name and distillery were owned by Whyte & Mackay. And that meant they also had potential access to Shackleton's Scotch. The decision was made to recover some of the bottles, initially for conservation purposes and scientific study. But then, seized by a desire to do the whisky drinkers of the world an immeasurable service -- as well as exploit a slam-dunk marketing angle -- Whyte & Mackay decided to bring the vintage nectar back to life and recreate it as closely as possible.
The sub-zero Antarctic temperatures froze the crates and bottles solid, but it wasn't cold enough to freeze the whisky, which could be heard sloshing in the bottles as it was finally excavated in 2009. After a painstaking, weeks-long thawing process, chemical analysis and tasting by Whyte & Mackay's master distillers, It only took a matter of months to effectively bring Shackleton's Scotch back to life. At least according to the handful of people who have tasted both, and swear that the original and replica are virtually indistinguishable. And now it's available to the masses, in a limited edition of 50,000, packaged in a beautiful replica bottle that Shackleton himself would find reassuringly familiar.
And how, you might ask, does it taste? For a blended Scotch, surprisingly robust and complex. Those turn-of-the-20th-century distillers really knew what they were doing. A blend of Highland and Speyside malts aged between 8 and 30 years, it's got a lot of peat on the nose, with notes of grass, hay and soil as well. Taken neat, it's quite dry, almost austere, with a lot of pepper and toasted malt. It's a little rough around the edges and quite... masculine is the word that comes to mind -- perhaps because of Shackleton himself. Add a few drops of water and the flavor becomes much sweeter. There's still a lot of grain and a little smoke on the palate, but honey, vanilla and lemon flavors become much more pronounced, with a perfumey, almost floral aroma.
So is this a whisky to buy for the taste? Or for the story behind it? In a word, yes. Of course, such attention to detail, right down to the corking method that was used on the original Shackleton bottles, doesn't come cheap -- it'll run you £100 (about $160) a bottle. And if you live in the States, you're out of luck, at least until September, which is when it will be exported here. But if you can't wait until then, going to a liquor store in the UK (or getting traveling friends/relatives to sneak a bottle home in their luggage) is still a lot easier than digging around in the Arctic permafrost. (Incidentally, 5% of the sale price of each bottle will go to Antarctic Heritage Trust, the organization responsible for finding the original bottles and making sure that they stay in pristine shape.)