Matthew Belson: In search of whiskey

Matthew Belson

Once in awhile a news story will come across the wire that forces me to pause for a moment and really pay attention. The really good, interesting stories also manage to make me crack a smile.

Such was the case this week when I read about a New Zealand expedition that is being planned to Antarctica in January.

Instead of the typical scientific forays mounted into the southernmost continent that deal with climate change, geology, marine biology, etc., this expedition’s sole purpose is gastronomic – to locate two cases of very old Scotch.

This is not your average 100-year-old cache of whiskey buried under a few feet of Antarctic ice. Polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton abandoned the two cases of Mackinlay and Co., brand whiskey in 1909 after a failed attempt at reaching the South Pole.

Scottish Distillers Whyte & Mackay, which owns the Mackinlay and Co brand, hopes to get its hands on one or more of the bottles of the old whiskey, or least a sample of the aged spirit with the idea of possibly trying to replicate the recipe and bottle it.

However, the old whiskey would be considered an artifact and fall under the conservation protections of the New Zealand based Antarctic Heritage Trust that, according to its Web site, is responsible for managing the historic sites of polar exploration around the Ross Sea region.

I have been fascinated with polar exploration since high school and the history and details of Shackleton’s expeditions to Antarctica are familiar to me. To see his name once again in the news, attached to an expedition, was exciting.

But it was the buried cases of whiskey that I found to be an interesting comparison of how things have changed.

Nowadays it’s possible to sign up up for a luxury cruise to Antarctica, but a century ago Antarctica was still a vast and unexplored continent. The expeditions led by Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott and Roald Amundsen did not have the benefit of satellite communication, freeze-dried foods, energy bars, light weight or breathable fabrics.

They truly were on their own, risking death (Scott died during his South Pole attempt in 1912), with very little chance of outside assistance. They were forced to survive for months in the harsh Antarctic climate wearing woolen clothes and furs, and eating canned goods. Of course, Shackleton and his team brought along a couple of cases of whiskey, and probably an ample supply of tobacco.

This past Wednesday evening I took a moment to pop outside my house to stargaze and try to catch some of the Leonid Meteor shower that supposedly would be visible. I thought about Shackleton’s whiskey and appreciated how with all of the crazy things going on at home and around the world, someone, somewhere thought up an excuse to mount an expedition to Antarctica to find buried whiskey.

As I watched a meteor streak across the sky, I felt a shiver. I wondered what that old whiskey would taste like and wished I had a tot at that moment, on a cold night in Harwich, Mass., thousands of miles from Antarctica.

Matthew Belson is new media editor for and a Harwich resident.