Talk about whiskey on ice: Three bottles of rare, 19th century Scotch found beneath the floor boards of Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackelton's abandoned expedition base were returned to the polar continent Saturday after a distiller flew them to Scotland to recreate the long-lost recipe.
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key personally returned the Scotch to Antarctic Heritage Trust officials at a ceremony at New Zealand's Antarctic base on Ross Island. The bottles will be transferred by March from Ross Island to the desolate hut at Cape Royds, where they had been forgotten for 102 years.
Key acknowledged that some would question why the bottles were being 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.
"I think we're all tempted to crack it open and have a little drink ourselves now," Key said.
The bottles of Mackinlay's whiskey, bottled in 1898 after the blend was aged 15 years, were among three crates of Scotch and two of brandy buried beneath a basic hut Shackleton had used during his dramatic 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. Shackelton was knighted after his return to Great Britain.
Shackelton'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 precious 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.
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 for the whiskey had been lost. But Whyte & Mackay recreated a limited edition of 50,000 bottles from a sample drawn with a syringe through a cork of one of the bottles. The conservation work of the Antarctic Heritage Trust has received 5 British pounds for every bottle sold.
The original bottles had flown in two combination-locked containers with Key to Antarctica in a U.S. Air Force transport plane from Christchurch on Friday.
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 from explorer Robert Scott's Antarctic hut which she is restoring.
"And definitely the aroma of whiskey was around very strongly."
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