Shackleton’s Whiskey

Arctic exploration holds a special place in the McChoppin mythos. So does whiskey. In particular Scotch whisky.1 So when I heard about a New Zealand expedition to retrieve a few bottles of the supposedly 25 cases of Scotch whisky left behind by Shackleton, I got excited. I imagine that preparations looked like this:

I also initially imagined that the Scotch was from Shackleton ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition, the expedition otherwise known as Endurance. Despite my extensive literary knowledge of the expedition, I imagined that as their ship, the Endurance, was being crushed by the churning sea-ice Shackleton and his men were pulling out 25 cases of whisky. Later, it was decided by Shackleton to have his men abandon all unnecessary items, including killing McNish’s cat, Mrs. Chippy,2 for the long journey. He did mercifully allow them to keep a few luxury items. I knew about a banjo, but could Shackleton also have allowed the equivalent of a barrel of whisky? Could they have dragged some 340 kgs of whisky, along with all their other supplies, some 12 km across the sea-ice?3 And then, the 160 km boat journey to Elephant Island? If all that happened, maybe Shackleton, Crean, and Worsley even took a few bottles with them on the James Caird for their 1300 km journey to South Georgia. Maybe they still even had a half a bottle with them as they made the thirty-six hour crossing of the island from King Haakon Bay to Stromness? Maybe the three men toasted the final drops as they spotted the whaling stations that signaled the end of their incredible journey? Maybe all that happened and it was left out of all the accounts that I read. Or, maybe even more unlikely, I somehow failed to appreciate those parts.

No, none of that happened. The Scotch in question was from Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition (I will hold off using any puns). Now, I’ve read quite a bit about the Endurance, Discovery, Terra Nova expeditions, but I know but scant information about the Nimrod adventure. So here are some facts. It, like all the others, was named after the flagship, the Nimrod.4 Shackleton had wanted a different ship, the Norwegian Bjorn, but due to lack of finances had to settle for the older and smaller Nimrod, but still of Norwegian heritage. It was Shackleton’s second Antarctic expedition, but the first one he commanded. He had previously accompanied Robert Falcon Scott on his Discovery expedition. He had told Falcon Scott that he would not set up camp in McMurdo Sound, where Discovery had its camp and Terra Nova was to be based as well, but because of sea-ice he ended up there anyway. The expedition ended up making camp on Cape Royds on Ross Island and at the foot of Mount Erebus. They stayed there for two years, during which they discovered the Beardmore Glacier, one of the largest glaciers in the world and a route to the heart of Antarctic and the South Pole.

So, apparently under Shackleton’s hut on Cape Royds there are some 300 bottles of whisky. The whisky is being called McKinlay or Mackinlay by the press, so I’m not sure which is correct, but the first one seems to be used more often. The expedition ended in 1909 so it’s been buried under the ice for a hundred years. Whisky wasn’t the only thing they brought with them. On Christmas Day, 1908, while navigating the Beardmore, the four men, Shackleton, Wild, Marshall, and Adams celebrated the day with cigars and crème de menthe. So maybe there is some crates of McGuinness crème de menthe and a couple boxes of Dunhills. I wonder what else is buried under the ice of Antarctic?

So there you have it. Antarctica, whiskey, and cigars. And adventure. Now that’s McChoppin’. That is an adventure of a lifetime. That’s stuff to write a book about. That is the kind of thing that if I could somehow get invited to go on, I’d have to figure out how to drop everything so that I could do it. I mean, what sounds better than having a cocktail of crème de menthe and Scotch from 100 liquor left by Shackleton himself in -5 C weather while smoking a equally old cigar?

1 As an American, I normally spell whiskey with the ‘e.’ However, the Scots spell it sans the extra vowel. Very little was attempted to ensure consistency here.
2 Mrs. Chippy was actually a male cat.
3 A feat which took them seven days.
4 It was officially called the British Antarctic Expedition 1907, but they were pretty much all called some form of that.

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