SCOTT BASE, Antarctica — Three bottles of rare, 19th-century Scotch whisky found beneath the floor boards of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s abandoned expedition base were returned to the polar continent Saturday after a distiller flew them to Scotland to re-create the long-lost recipe.
Not even New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, who personally returned the stash, got a taste of the contents of the bottles of Mackinlay’s whiskey, which were rediscovered 102 years after the explorer was forced to leave them behind.
“I think we’re all tempted to crack it open and have a little drink ourselves now,” Key joked at a ceremony handing over the bottles to Antarctic Heritage Trust officials at New Zealand’s Antarctic base on Ross Island.
The whiskey will be transferred by March from Ross Island to Shackleton’s desolate hut at Cape Royds and replaced beneath the restored hut as part of a program to protect the legacy of the so-called heroic era of Antarctic exploration from 1898 to 1915.
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Bottled in 1898 after the blend was aged 15 years, the Mackinlay bottles were among three crates of Scotch and two of brandy buried beneath a basic hut Shackleton had used during his 1907 Nimrod excursion to the Antarctic.
The expedition failed to reach the South Pole but set a record at the time for reaching the farthest southern latitude. Shackleton was knighted after his return to Great Britain.
Shackleton’s stash was discovered frozen in ice by conservationists in 2010. The crates were frozen solid after more than a century beneath the Antarctic surface.
But the bottles were found intact — and researchers could hear the whiskey sloshing around inside.
Antarctica’s minus-22 Fahrenheit temperature was not enough to freeze the liquor.
The bottles remained unopened as they were returned Saturday, but their contents nevertheless formed the basis for a revival of the blend.
Distiller Whyte & Mackay, which now owns the Mackinlay brand, chartered a private jet to take the bottles from the Antarctic operations headquarters in the New Zealand city of Christchurch to Scotland for analysis in 2011.
The recipe had been lost. But Whyte & Mackay re-created a limited edition of 50,000 bottles from a sample drawn with a syringe through a cork of one of the bottles.
Antarctic Heritage Trust manager Lizzie Meek, who was part of the team that found the whiskey, recalled its pleasant aroma.
“When you’re used to working around things in that hut that perhaps are quite decayed and some of them don’t have very nice smells, it’s very nice to work with artifacts that have such a lovely aroma,” Meek told the ceremony by radio.