Guest Blog: Lew Bryson on Mackinlay’s Highland Malt WhiskyNovember 13th, 2011
Lew Bryson, Whisky Advocate’s managing editor and contributor, joins us today with a recap of his recent whisky expedition.
If you’re like me, you were somewhat stunned by the 2007 discovery of intact cases of Mackinlay’s Highland Malt Whisky, buried in the ice for 100 years under Ernest Shackleton’s long-abandoned Antarctic base camp at Cape Royds. And, if you’re like me, you might have been somewhat stunned by the stream of stories that came out of that discovery. One crate was flown to New Zealand, slowly thawed; three bottles then flown to Scotland (on Dr. Vijay Mallya’s private jet), there to be analyzed by a crew led by Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson; the project to replicate the character of that whisky… Well, to tell the truth, except for a wee tinge of envy when fellow writer Dominic Roskrow got a tiny sip of the original back in July (lucky bastard!), I somewhat lost interest along the way.
Until, that is, the whisky was announced as “Ready!” Really? I’m all excited again, especially since reports were that the whisky was quite worth the effort. The U.S. launch was set for November 10th, at — appropriately — the Explorers Club in New York City. I made the trek uptown, and entered the hallowed halls, somewhat awestruck. The first glass of champagne cooled that a bit!
I fell in with Richard Paterson quickly, warmly congratulated him on the accomplishment, and let him continue to be celebrated, very much the man of the hour. Then I fell to chatting with David Robertson, who I hadn’t seen in some years, and who is now Rare Whisky Director for Whyte & Mackay. He provided me with some fascinating bits and pieces about the whisky, such as the analysis having revealed that the light peat in it derived from peat from Orkney — will chemical wonders never cease? — and the wood used to age the whisky having been American white oak in sherry casks. He also told me that the cask of Glen Mhor Richard nosed and selected to recreate the Mackinlay’s was, eerily, cask number 1907.
He also told me that the whisky was a huge success and was selling quite rapidly. The 50,000 bottles, planned for a two year selling period, would likely be all sold in twelve months (five pounds from each bottle goes to the Antarctic Heritage Trust). And you’ve already said you won’t make more, I chided him; but it’s so good, you have to! He rolled his eyes a bit, and said that they had made a promise…but that they might well make another, somewhat different version. It’s certainly hit a sweet spot on price and value and story, it would be a shame for this to be a one-off.
Because, you see, as Paterson explained — to a surprisingly quiet and attentive crowd of Club members, media, industry, and assorted important people (like the Right Honorable Mike Moore, New Zealand’s ambassador to the U.S., who I’m afraid I may have bumped into while trying to get to the bar; sorry, sir) — this is a unique whisky opportunity. The whisky was completely undisturbed at chillingly cold temperatures, but at 47.3% ABV, he said, it never froze. It is intact, almost perfectly preserved from within two years of its bottling.
Still, as Robertson had confided to me earlier, there was a terrible risk. Whyte & Mackay had already committed to making this replica whisky taste exactly like what was in that bottle. “What if it was horrible?” Robertson said, with a look on his face I’m sure he’d had before the bottle was first sampled. “’Richard, would you make us a whisky that tastes exactly that bad?’ I can tell you; he’d have said ‘Put my name on that? No.’”
Happily, that wasn’t an issue. The whisky was, by all reports, quite nice indeed. “Less smoky than we’d expected,” Robertson said, and indeed, there’d been much speculation that it would be a smokier whisky from an earlier time when whisky was burly and men were men… not the case. There was a definite but restrained peat component in the nose, along with vanilla, light fruit, and faint caramel. The flavors were a replication of the nose, with a firm malt bedrock; the smoke revisited on the finish. If the reports on the original were true, the replica was true: quite nice indeed.
After a few more drams of the Mackinlay’s, and a bit more conversation with a nice gentleman from the Antarctic Heritage Trust about the whisky — he was pleased as well — I had to return home from my adventure. Shackleton didn’t make it to the Pole, but I will discover and conquer a bottle of his expedition’s whisky.