Book Review: Shackleton's Whisky by Neville Peat

Neville Peat's book, Shackleton Whisky
Ernest Shackleton in his prime
Shackleton's ship Endurance trapped in Antarctic ice in 1915
Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson with the Shackleton whisky
Shackleton's 1908 hut near the South Pole where the whisky was found

Shackleton's Whisky by Neville Peat, released on October 5, is published by Random House.

When explorer Ernest Shackleton embarked on his 1907 Antarctic Expedition with 14 other adventurers, it would have seemed preposterous his journey would become synonymous with whisky.

Shackleton was a well-known teetotaler, after all, except for a "mild spree" from time to time.

But 105 years later, that heroic expedition sits alongside another extraordinary tale: that of the rare Scotch whisky which was left under the hut, untouched until 2007.

Author Neville Peat brilliantly captures the perilous conditions these men faced during their year on the ice, and the dramatic recovery a century later of the whisky they left behind.

It provides a fascinating and detailed account of what it was like for 15 men to spend 12 months in the  coldest and most remote part of the earth.

The alcohol
Alcohol is the common thread through this book, which sets it apart from other historical accounts of the expedition.

Stories involving drinking are woven throughout, many of them quirky, such as the time half a bottle of brandy was poured down the throat of a pony called Chinaman who had fallen into the ice.

Those there at the time reckoned the brandy saved Chinaman's life. 

Shackleton – a man who grew up "abhorring" strong drink because of its deleterious social effects – ordered 25 cases of whisky, 12 of brandy and six of port for the expedition.

That is 516 bottles. Clearly, he wanted his men to have a little fun, or just unwind a bit.

The whisky, Mackinlay's Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky, came from the Glen Mhor Distillery at Inverness, with the water sourced from Loch Ness.

The book returns to the issue of the whisky later, but not before taking the reader on an incredible journey of heroic survival and endurance. 

The expedition
Nimrod, the 42m former seal hunting vessel which was refurbished for the expedition, arrived at McMurdo Sound five months after leaving London on July 30, 1907.

The crew stayed on Cape Royds in a wooden prefabricated hut measuring 10m by 5.8m.

It was really just one big room, with sleeping quarters being nothing more than a small cubicle curtained off, each for two men.

The beds were not much more than wooden boxes with wood shavings for mattresses.

Shackleton ensured they were well fed, however. The expedition's cook, William Roberts, had enough food to last two years, so he could provide plenty of variety.

"Meat from New Zealand, of which 'Koonya mutton' was the freshest, included roast beef, corned beef, Irish stew, ox cheeks, ox tongues and tripe in milk.

"Also in the larder for protein were York hams, bacon, brawn salmon, sardines, pilchards and herrings."

Cigarettes were popular, too, and Shackleton, "The Boss", smoked his fair share.

As for alcohol consumption, he preferred a mostly teetotal regime, but allowed a "mild spree" from time to time.

"Members of the expedition with a taste for alcohol could utilise their weekly allowance of 'one drink per man on a Saturday night'.

"There were toasts 'To Sweethearts and Wives', and wry comments about hoping they never met up," according to sledge master Frank Wild.

Peat draws attention to a mid-winter feast in 1908, with a menu featuring turtle soup, penguin patties, seal cutlets, roast reindeer for the main course, accompanied by blackcurrant jelly, potatoes and green peas.

Printed along the menu's margins is whisky, champagne and more whisky, indicating it was a rather joyous occasion.

Geologist Raymond Priestly wrote in his diary that "the duty was taken off alcohol with very fair effects".

There was a singsong until midnight and "the gramophone was hand-cranked and rewound time and again to enliven the party".

The Southern Party
After a long, dark winter, on October 29, 1907, Shackleton set off to reach the geographic South Pole with three others: meteorologist and second-in-charge Jameson Adams, Frank Wild and surgeon and cartographer Dr Eric Marshall.

Wild called it "the Great Southern Journey".

By November 26 the three had already reached the previous "furthest south", reached by Captain Robert Scott's 1902 expedition, which Shackleton was a part of.

They trudged hundred of kilometres through thick snow and perilous glaciers, having their cargo hauled on sledges by four ponies.

All four would be shot and eaten by the men over the course of their three-month journey.

They laid deposits of food along the way down to the pole to keep them going on the return journey.

By New Year's Day 1908 they knew they were not going to make it to the pole: they were running out of food, they were exhausted and they needed to make it back to base before Nimrod left on March 1.

A new goal was set: to get within 100 miles of the pole.

On January 9 they declared a new "farthest south" just 156km (97 miles) from the pole.

They hoisted the Union Jack and "took possession of the plateau in the name of King Edward VII".

"Then Marshall lined up a photograph of the dismal scene – three near-faceless, hooded men and one oversized flag – and they promptly started backtracking."

They arrived back in time to depart with Nimrod on March 4, leaving behind a hut full of food and drink for anyone who may need it in the future.

The whisky
Incredibly, the case of McKinlay's whisky which was left under the hut was not found until the summer of 2007.

It was finally removed in February 2010 and flown to Christchurch, where it was thawed at the Canterbury Museum before being flown to Scotland to be tested.

The whisky was extracted using syringes, so as to not actually open the bottles, and is said to have been perfectly drinkable – extraordinary, after well over a century in the ice.

What's more, despite being encased in ice for 100 years, the whisky probably did not freeze – it had a lower freezing point because McKinlay's gave it a high alcohol content.

It was also insulated by straw inside a wooden box, which would have protected it from the worst of the cold.

The quality of the whisky is also said to have been down to the purity of the water from Lock Ness, which fed the Inverness distillery.

Lovers of history and adventure will be enthralled by this book.

Peat spins an engaging, gripping yarn which brings the reader into a world he or she will never know.

The sheer bravery required to embark on, and survive, an Antarctic expedition at that time is not understated.

But as well as the expedition, Peat brings the story of the McKinlay's whisky to life.

Even for those not accustomed to, or even interested in, the world of whisky, this is still a fascinating part of the story.

The whisky is almost a character in itself, an unexpected hero.

Its journey from Antarctica back to Scotland is an equally thrilling tale as Shackleton's expedition.

callison@nbr.co.nz

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1 Comment & Question

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I saw these bottles behind glass at the scanty museum and wondered whether they wereok.. I knew as a chemist that they probably should be well!

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