Since late September 2018, the South Indian Ocean has been home to an unusual bit of flotsam: a 16-liter cask of single malt Irish whiskey. The cask, from Glendalough Distillery in County Wicklow, is on board an abandoned yacht, drifting slowly over a thousand miles from the nearest shore. The whiskey is waiting to be rescued—and it may be very soon.
How the cask, and its ill-fated means of transportation, ended up abandoned is quite a story. Last July, Irishman Gregor McGuckin set out in the yacht Hanley Energy Endurance as part of the 2018 Golden Globe Race, a round-the-world, non-stop solo sailing race that started and will end in Les Sables d’Olonne, France. Glendalough Distillery provided sponsorship, along with a cask of its 7 year old, porter cask-finished single malt whiskey (and six bottles for McGuckin, so he wouldn’t be tempted to tap the cask), with the idea that the cask would spend an additional seven months maturing on the seven seas. It would be called 777, and Glendalough co-founder Kevin Keenan hoped that in the course of its ocean journey, the cask would allow salt air to permeate into the liquid. “The 7 year old single malt has dark chocolate and caramel notes from the porter cask, so as you can imagine, fresh sea-salt should work well with these flavors,” he says.
Nearly three months into his voyage, McGuckin sailed into a fierce storm in the South Indian Ocean; after initially losing the mizzenmast, his boat ended up rolling a full 360 degrees, causing the main mast to break as well. McGuckin, who was miraculously uninjured, jury-rigged a mast in order to reach a fellow competitor who was seriously injured and whose vessel had also been severely damaged in the storm. When the other man was picked up by a larger ship, McGuckin opted for rescue himself, abandoning the Hanley Energy Endurance and all its contents (minus one bottle of the whiskey, which he gifted to his rescuers).
The yacht and its cask of whiskey have been drifting ever since, currently about 1,100 miles west of Australia. But McGuckin would like to get the boat back—and Glendalough wants its whiskey. Enter Cody Howdeshell, a 22-year-old engineer from North Carolina who’s experienced in maritime salvage. After learning about the abandoned vessel—and its precious cargo—on social media, he decided to have a go at rescuing it. “I’m always on the lookout for the next interesting job,” he says. “When I saw this whole salvage deal with Gregor’s boat and the Indian Ocean, I thought, ‘I’m going to have to go with that.’ The barrel of whiskey on board just adds a whole layer of mystique.”
Later this month, Howdeshell will fly to Australia to drum up a rescue vessel and support crew to assist in the salvage operation, which he estimates will take around six weeks. Despite the fact that he’s taking time off from his regular job to seek out and salvage the Hanley Energy Endurance, he’s not aiming to make a profit on the endeavor and has agreed to return the vessel to McGuckin, rather than keeping it for himself—which he would be permitted to do under internationally recognized practices of marine salvage. “It’s just the way I’ve always lived my life,” he says. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for an adventure—for a story.”
Although McGuckin is trying to provide some financial support and Glendalough is offering 1,000 euros—and a bottle of the whiskey—for the return of the cask, Howdeshell notes that will barely cover the cost of flights, and plans to self-fund the trip. “Hopefully it’ll be a break-even operation,” he says. “The main profit is the adventure.” Even so, he has started a GoFundMe to raise money for costs like chartering a rescue vessel and paying additional crewmembers. Anyone who donates at least $25 will be automatically entered into a drawing for a bottle of the whiskey.
When it’s all over, Howdeshell—whose current go-to whiskeys are Bulleit rye, Michter’s, and Basil Hayden’s—wants to visit Glendalough Distillery to learn more about Irish whiskey. “I think those guys at the distillery owe me a few drinks and maybe a few lessons on their Irish whiskey,” he says. (When he’s there, he’ll get a chance to try Glendalough 13 year old Mizunara Cask, number 18 on Whisky Advocate’s 2018 Top 20 list.)
As for the ocean-going whiskey, Glendalough plans to eventually bottle the contents of the cask and offer it up for sale, likely this summer. Because the cask is pretty small—and no one yet knows how much liquid has been lost to the angels’ share—there will not be many bottles available; Keenan estimates about twenty-odd will go up for sale. And it’s important to note that the whiskey itself will not be labeled as Irish whiskey, since it has matured partly outside the country. (All Irish whiskey must be fully matured in Ireland.)
After the whiskey is bottled, Howdeshell will get to keep the empty cask. “That’s maritime salvage tradition—you always take a prize,” he says. “Usually it’s something like a compass or a wheel or a bell, but this time it’s a barrel of booze.”