Ernest Shackleton’s stash of hundred-year-old booze was discovered buried in the ice under the explorer’s Antarctic base camp.
In January 2010 workers from the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust successfully extracted the cases from the ice and now one of them is being slowly thawed to see if the whisky can be saved.
The hut served as the base of operations for the British 1907-1909 Nimrod Expedition, an early attempt in the race to the geographic South Pole led by a young Ernest Shackleton.
The expedition set out from McMurdo Sound. Shackleton had taken part in Robert Scott’s earlier Discovery Expedition, from which he was sent home, most likely suffering from scurvy. It had originally been his plan to launch his expedition from Scott’s Discovery Hut on Hut Point, but after being specifically asked not to do so, Shackleton’s crew erected their own pre-fabricated hut at Cape Royds, just 23 miles from the original structure. The simple structure is 33 feet long by 19 feet wide, with separate lodging for the expedition’s ponies, dogs, and the first motorcar on the continent, a 12-15 horsepower Arrol Johnston specially retrofitted for the expedition.
The expedition was plagued by the types of problems that would become the familiar hallmarks of polar exploration. An early sidetrip nearly killed six members of the expedition on the first ascent of Mt. Erebus which left them trapped on the side of the volcano in blizzard conditions. Later, the first attempt on the pole broke down in personality conflicts and equipment failures and was forced to turn back within 100 miles of the goal. Inadequate food supplies and the death of the expedition’s ponies on the return trip led Shackleton to complain, “We are so thin that our bones ache as we lie on the hard snow.”
Some success was achieved by the separate northern expedition party who made it to the magnetic South Pole (a moving target, several miles from the geographic South Pole), which was enough to consider the overall effort a success. Upon leaving Antarctica to go back home, Shackleton wrote:
“We all turned out to give three cheers and to take a last look at the place where we had spent so many happy days. The hut was not exactly a palatial residence … but, on the other hand, it had been our home for a year that would always live in our memories…. We watched the little hut fade away in the distance with feelings almost of sadness, and there were few men aboard who did not cherish a hope that some day they would once more live strenuous days under the shadow of mighty Erebus.”
Shackleton was knighted upon his return to England. Five years later he made his most famous attempt at the pole. The Endurance Expedition, in which his ship became trapped and sunk in ice, was another technical failure, but an epic success story of survival against all odds.
The Cape Royds Hut was restored between 2004 and 2008 as part of the Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project, which is looking after the four Antarctic expedition huts. The building has been left almost exactly as it was at the turn of the last century. Workers hoped to uncover two crates of whisky rumored to be located at the hut, but were surprised to find five crates of whisky and brandy, intact and full, in 2006. They were carefully removed from the ice four years later.
One crate of the whiskey has been carefully exported to New Zealand, where conservators are attempting to slowly thaw the bottles. The company Whyte and Mackay, the original supplier of the whisky is still in business, and now involved with the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, where they are attempting to safely thaw some of the whisky so that a sample can be taken, and, hopefully, a recipe re-created. Once the experiment is completed, the crate will be returned to its home at the hut.
You can follow the whisky thaw project here: The Great Whisky Crate Thaw.