By Micah Hanks
“I personally think they must have been left there by mistake, because it’s hard to believe two crates would have been left under the hut without drinking them,” remarks Al Fastier. Program Manager of the Antarctic Heritage Trust, Fastier oversees the organization, which is responsible for the care of the expedition bases associated with the first explorers of the Ross Sea region of Antarctica. Among these explorers–and perhaps most famous among his peers–was Sir Ernest Shackleton. Now, ninety years after one of the huts occupied by Shackleton was abandoned, a long forgotten gift he left behind is being unearthed: two crates of a now-extinct blend of McKinlay scotch whisky.
Three wooden huts still stand along the desolate and rocky terrain of Cape Evans on the west side of Ross Island, forming the north side of the entrance to Erebus Bay. It was here that Shackleton and his men would warm themselves by fires fed with blubber of seals they killed, and many of their belongings, tools, and even boxes of their food remain on the walls as they had been when they left. Outside Shackleton’s hut lay a dog’s remains, left where it had been shot as the men evacuated the area with haste in 1917.
Shackleton’s expedition had attempted to reach the Southen Pole from Cape Royds, where their camp had been positioned, but began to fall victim to diminishing resources. Finally, leaving the area for the McMurdo Sound, the men battled hunger on half-rations, often as little as one biscuit and few other accoutrement per day. Shackleton once recalled giving his single biscuit for the day to his malnourished and sick companion, Frank Wild, who later said of the experience, “All the money that was ever minted would not have bought that biscuit and the remembrance of that sacrifice will never leave me”. Famished, Shackleton and his crew arrived back at what, appropriately, has been dubbed “Hut Point” just in time to catch the ship.
As Fastier and his crew have combed over the area, it was to their great surprise three years ago that the two cases of McKinlay and Co whisky had been discovered, buried beneath one of the three standing huts. The cases were covered in a layer of ice, requiring the use of special cutting tools to remove the crates.
In spite of the fact that the bottles represent an “extinct” variety of the rarest scotch whisky, Fastier recently assured inquiring minds listening to a New Zealand Radio broadcast that he won’t be tempted to sample the Scotch, saying “It would be terrible to sample it and find that it was off.” In the meantime, the Whyte and Mackay Company, distillers that own the McKinlay brand at present, are keen to get hold of a bottle, with hopes they “might even get enough to be able to take a stab at recreating it.”
Shackleton is known to have actually seen some ridicule from his shipmates over his drinking; in fact, the famous explorer’s final moments were haunted by one such incident. According to his companion Alexander Macklin’s account, warned the ailing Shackleton on his final voyage to try and “lead a more regular life.” Shackleton shot back that Macklin was “always wanting me to give up things, what is it I ought to give up?”
“Chiefly alcohol, Boss,” replied Macklin.
Shackleton suffered a fatal heart attack within moments. Nonetheless, the heroic explorer’s legacy will live on, and indeed, the discovery of “extinct” McKinlay scotch will add further intrigue to his exploits in the coldest southern extremities. May his spirit–and many other deceased “spirits”–be remembered.