Whisky Advocate

Guest Blog: Lew Bryson on Mackinlay’s Highland Malt Whisky

November 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.

30 Responses to “Guest Blog: Lew Bryson on Mackinlay’s Highland Malt Whisky”

  1. sam k says:

    Great story, you lucky bastard!

  2. Texas says:

    Well, I am in Antarctica right now, I can see Discovery Hut from Scott’s Expedition right out my dorm window. However, one cannot get to Shackleton’s Hut this year by ice road since winter storms blew all the thick old ice out and the new ice is too thin.

    I stopped off at Whiskygalore in Christchurch on my way down and was real tempted to get a bottle of the Mackinlay but just could not spring the NZD 240 for it. (We can take alcohol down in our carry-on going down to the Ice). The fine folks at Whiskygalore set me up with an OMC Pittyvaich, which Serge Valentin hates, but I absolutely love. I was even able to sample dram before I bought it. The owner of Whiskygalore, Michael Fraser Milne, was the first expert to nose and inspect the whisky that was thawed out. I am surprised nobody has done a story on his shop. The original shop was badly damaged in the Christchurch earthquakes (massive devastation which North Americans don’t seem to know about) but they now have a beautiful new shop on Victoria Street.

    • lawschooldrunk says:

      The earthquake and whiskygalore was covered in whiskycast.com in, I think, July of 2011.

      • Texas says:

        OK, thanks. Wish the Mackinlay was just a bit less expensive. Really would like to try it but it just exceeds my self-imposed limit.

  3. OudErnest says:

    I enjoyed the documentary that aired a few weeks back on cable here in Connecticut but was disappointed by the fact that they never once mentioned the distilleries Mr. Paterson visited nor did they mention from what distillery the final stock was chosen from. I found it frustrating to watch him visit numerous distilleries and not once mention where he was.

  4. NP says:

    Cask “1907” …right. That’s a cute (marketing) story.
    The blend must have been already pre-exisiting and selected for its comparable characteristics with the initial whisky since I doubt any blend can integrate, be bottled, packaged and shipped to the US within 6/8 months.

    Now I must say I enjoyed the whisky a lot and loved Mr Paterson presentation & charisma at Explorer Club last Thursday. The man is quite a public speaker.

  5. John Hansell says:

    I’ve been drinking this whisky for quite a while, now, and must say that I like it very much. Delicious and distinctive.

    • Chap says:

      The funny thing is, the thing it reminded me of (courtesy of a taste from a friend with money) was a more rounded Craigellachie. Which, I would like to find some of *that* around here!

  6. MrTH says:

    The original whisky is priceless. The replication is just another whisky. The asking price is silly. Another Paterson vanity project.

  7. two-bit cowboy says:

    Thanks for sharing your take, Lew.

    Every new facet of this story reveals more, previously undisclosed information. The collective story — as pieced together from the existing vantage points — depicts a wonderful, historic quilt.

    The first information releases about the replica whisky seemed to suggest that only Richard and Dave Broom had tasted both the original and the replica. Now we discover that Dominic had a taste of Shackleton’s too. And National Geographic’s recent special, Expedition Whisky, lets us imagine that yet another human consumed some of the original nectar. I’d guess there are more.

    Frustrating as that hour-long, limited-information piece was, it offered some extra patches to the quilt.

    Stitching some of the pieces together, the video on the http://www.enduringspirit.com/home/ site offers a few more threads of evidence that answer questions not noted in other sources.

    Yet another media outlet ( http://www.calgaryherald.com/life/spirit+exploration/5593782/story.html ) gives us more sturdy facts we’d not yet learned.

    And, hey, TEXAS, several folks I know and I read http://www.nzherald.co.nz/ as a matter of daily course so please limit your accusatory comments about Americans’ ignorance of all things New Zealand to your acquaintances.

    With best wishes and thanks to the wonderful folks in Christchurch and all of New Zealand.

    • Texas says:

      My comments were directed to the North American media, not your average folks. I should have made that clear. It’s a beautiful city, one I love dearly and even considered moving there before I met my wife. It is just heartbreaking to see city center…

      • two-bit cowboy says:

        Heartily agree with your shot at USA media.

        Christchurch is still reeling and you rarely see even a paragraph about it in our news. Yet the NZ Herald offers a better view of the whole world than any US outlet.

  8. B.J. Reed says:

    Tasted it a week or so ago. It is very nice – surprisingly so since much of what has been written about earlier vintages of scotch were not all that flattering. Now if I can find a Caol Isa bottled before 1974 :)

  9. Bob Siddoway says:

    What’s retail on this replica whisky? Is the $160 I’m seeing correct?

    Interesting story behind the real stuff, though… I would have loved to have tasted it down there at the South Pole.

    • Chap says:

      The place down the street from work in D.C. has a bottle for $155. D.C. has good selection but high prices, so your mileage may vary.

  10. Danny Maguire says:

    Nicely written Lew, I don’t think I’ve got anything original to add so I’ll just echo comments made by other people. You lucky ___________.

  11. SnowPyramid says:

    I probably missed this, but did anyone mention how the replica compares to the original?

    • Texas says:

      From what I have read of the precious few that tasted the original, the recreation is pretty close. I was very surprised to read that the original was not hugely peated.

      Whiskygalore was telling me that a few people were able to make it to Shackleton’s Hut either by other means or earlier in the season when the ice road was better and took a picture at the hut with their bottle of the new Mackinlay then sent the pic to Whiskygalore.

  12. Red_Arremer says:

    I want to say some negative things about this whisky:

    -Read Dave’s comparison of it to the original in that other magazine. How much more interesting does he make the original sound?

    -Honestly, what gets you more excited about this whisky– The flavor or the story?

    -If you tasted it blind, would you think “Oh yeah I’m ready to drop 150+ on this, no problem”?

    Mackinlay’s (160$) is an interesting whisky with a fabulous story, but I’d take an excellent whisky with a mediocre story any day– Say Glenmorangie Finealta (80$), another period recreation, which everyone passed over because of its proximity to the Sonnalta release.

  13. patrick says:

    This was a good whisky and if you like to have to more information about the scientific work behind the re-creation of this whisky, you might have a look at my article (for dummies, with a link to the full and original publication):
    http://www.whisky-news.com/En/reports/Shackleton_whiskyandscience.html

  14. Yves Cosentino says:

    Hi, Patrick, All
    Patrick, it’s a great resource you dug up there (again). Reminds me to check your http://whisky-news.com site more often!
    I’m very tempted now to snap up a bottle of Finnealta (heard a lot fo great things about it from friends)… and maybe the Mackinlay / Shackleton recreation too.
    Being a marketing man myself, feel the whole enterprise was conducted rather well by the W&M people, with quite some integrity and truthfulness.
    Yves

    • Red_Arremer says:

      The Finnealta will not disappoint you, Yves. And the Shackleton is O.K. enough too– as long as you’re at a place in your life where 150+$ doesn’t mean much of anything to you.

      And, yes, the marketing for this whisky was great and really hit a chord with a lot of whisky people– myself excluded.

  15. mongo says:

    looks like it took a lot of old/premium contemporary whisky to replicate a very young whisky (the ny times article refers to multiple 25 yo’s being in the vatting). i guess the price/story had to be justified that way as well.

  16. The story behind this whisky is great, and so what if the original is slightly different from the “recreation”, it’s a recreation, by virtue of that it can never be the same thing. I think Whyte and MacKay has done a wonderful job of bringing to market a good whisky with a compelling story. Its been a huge hit at my store in Calgary, Canada, and it has inspired and touched a lot of people. If you think it’s too expensive, buy another whisky; there’s more than a few out there and its limited and expected to sell out soon anyway. No one is forcing anyone to buy it. And so what if the story is what’s exciting people so much? It is a compelling story. Hats off to Whyte and MacKay on a fabulous whisky which is giving back to the folks who found it and are preserving Shackleton’s legacy.

  17. Mike says:

    We bought a couple of bottles and tried one. Surprisingly nice. We love the story and all the background color. It is not the best whiskey that I have but that is not the reason we enjoy it. It is certainly the whiskey with the most interesting story. It is one of those “rare” things that are just fun (and taste good too). Nicely packaged and presented. We paid about $160 for each bottle.

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