Whisky hit the mainstream news headlines last year when a crate of 100 odd year old whisky was retrieved from an Antarctic hut abandoned in the early 1900’s by explorer Ernest Shackleton. I’m not going to rehash the story – if you’re unfamiliar with the details you can read up on it further at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-12202880 and elsewhere. The whisky is Mackinlay’s: a brand owned by Whyte & Mackay, which was discontinued some time back.
There are two elements to this story which caught my attention in particular. Firstly the whisky has been estimated to be worth US$69 000 per bottle on the open market. Clearly not because of its intrinsics – at this time no-one even knows whether this is a blend, a blended malt, or a single malt. Further whisky doesn’t mature in the bottle, so the age in terms of the liquid itself is at best irrelevant, at worst of detriment to quality. As an aside I think it would have been considerably more interesting had Shackleton taken casks with him. In typical conditions 100 years of wood would overpower a whisky, but who knows what cycles of freezing and thawing over that period would have accomplished. Anyhow, throw in the risk of taint, musty aroma, and particulate from these corked bottles, and it becomes clear that the value comes from provenance and not product (drinkable though it may still be). It thus absolutely amazes me that people would be prepared to spend this much for items that, to be frank, are of dubious historical significance; after all, heroic though Shackleton may have been, his missions failed to achieve their objectives. And the bottles are not even particularly rare – there are some 35 of them in existence. Perhaps then it’s for the best that this is all academic. The Antarctic Preservation Trust has made it clear that they won’t be put on sale.
The second point of interest is that 3 bottles have been flown back to Scotland for analysis – by Whyte & Mackay Master Blender Richard Paterson, who was quoted as saying: “It is an absolute honour to be able to use my experience to analyse this amazing spirit for the benefit of the Trust and the whisky industry”. Very noble. Owner of Whyte & Mackay Vijay Mallya was more forthright: “to us it might well be a huge marketing opportunity”. His plan is to use the results of the analysis to recreate the whisky’s recipe. Personally I’m not sure what this window into the past can teach us about making better whisky. Whisky-making is part-art, part-science, but the best of the art has been retained, refined, and passed on over generations, and the science has improved somewhat since Shacketon’s whisky was made. Nonetheless, if there are any insights to be gained I welcome it. Perhaps they’ll identify and be able to recreate a particularly appealing strain of barley. My suspicion though is that this is about marketing pure and simple. Given our fascination with the past, it’s a great angle to be able to offer whisky as it was drunk a century ago. Unfortunately for Whyte & Mackay they’ve been beaten to the punch. A few days ago Glenmorangie officially launched Finealta, a recreation of a 1900’s recipe found in the distillery’s archives. If anyone’s tasted it I’d be interested to hear if history’s bounty justifies the hype. Even better, if someone from Glenmorangie happens to read this, kudos and don’t hesitate to send me a bottle.