Shackleton’s Whisky by Neville Peat – review

by Listener Archive / 03 November, 2012
Whisky gives Neville Peat a new angle on Ernest Shackleton.
Shackleton's Whisky by Neville Peat

The cover photograph of Ernest Shackleton, taken in 1909, shows the doughty Edwardian explorer forcing a smile but looking shagged, battered and a little groggy. The poor blighter has just spent exhausting weeks slogging his way back to the coast from the Antarctic interior, after making it to within 100 miles of the Pole. But put that smile together with the cover’s bold-print word WHISKY and a shot of two bottles, and you’d swear that Sir Ernest was drunk. This is the paradox of Neville Peat’s Shackleton’s Whisky. Here’s this upright and genuinely teetotal hero, best known for bringing all his men out alive after the Endurance was crushed by ice in his 1914- 17 expedition. And here’s the evidence that he stocked up large with the hard stuff in his earlier 1907-09 Nimrod expedition.

To be precise, as part of the Nimrod’s stores, Shackleton ordered in 25 cases (300 bottles) of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky. That’s the equivalent of 20 bottles for each man in his shore party. The kick-off point for this book is a discovery made by a New Zealand conservation team in 2006, at Shackleton’s Cape Royds hut in the Ross Dependency. Under the floor were found two cases of the Nimrod expedition’s original whisky, undisturbed and frozen. Taken back to Christchurch for careful unfreezing, then scientifically sampled, the century-old whisky became the template for a “replica” whisky, as the original recipe had been lost. Is this tale an adequate hook for 300 pages of (well-illustrated) book? Yes and no. In fact, the tale of the replicated whisky takes up only the last third of the book.

More arresting are the first 200 pages, chronicling Shackleton’s “forgotten” expedition, and especially the social life of 15 men wintering over in a hut described as no bigger than a modern touring bus. How often did they hit the bottle during the long Antarctic darkness? We can only speculate. Even so, Shackleton’s Whisky has much whisky lore and features lyrical passages about how whisky is produced. Passages such as: “So the kilns of Glen Mhor burnt bright and aromatic with Eday peat, which conveys its smokiness and salt to the barley grains and onward into the malt and new-make spirit.” And yes, it does add to the fun that the author’s name is Peat.


Poet and writer Nicholas Reid’s blog is Reid’s Reader.
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