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Page last updated at 17:36 GMT, Tuesday, 17 November 2009

What would Shackleton's whisky taste like?

The Magazine answers...

After a century buried in the Antarctic ice, a rare batch of whisky that belonged to the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton is to be recovered. So what might it taste like?

Ernest Shackleton and crew
In need of a drink - Ernest Shackleton, left, and fellow crew

It's been on the rocks for the last 100 years, buried under two feet of Antarctic ice. Now the two cases of "Rare Old" brand Mackinlay and Co whisky are to be retrieved.

A team of New Zealand explorers heading out in January has been asked by Whyte & Mackay, the company that now owns Mackinlay and Co, to get a sample of the drink. The crates were left behind by Sir Ernest Shackleton when he abandoned his mission to the South Pole in 1909.

The cases were discovered again by polar explorers in 2006, but couldn't be removed as they were too deeply embedded in ice. Now the team plans to use special drills to rescue a sample. But what might it taste like?

It will taste the same as it did 100 years ago if it has been stored upright
If the cork has stayed in place
Any cloudiness due to low temperature will fade when it is heated

A whisky can survive indefinitely and taste the same if it is stored correctly, says a spokesman for specialist drinks company The Whisky Exchange.

It should not be exposed to light or heat, which change the colour of the whisky and make it fade. Most importantly the bottle should be kept upright, unlike wine.

"This is because alcohol erodes cork over time," says the spokesman. "Whisky is about four times stronger than wine so if it is in contact with the cork it will damage it quite quickly.

Peaty taste

"The alcohol vapour in the bottle should be sufficient to keep the cork moist and prevent it from drying out and air getting in. If whisky is being stored for any length of time you may have to wet the cork occasionally, but even then only once or twice a year."

Whisky glass
Ok, it won't look like this

Extremely low temperatures, like those in the Antarctic, will make the whisky cloudy, but this should fade when it is warmed up, says David Stewart, a master blender at distillers William Grant & Sons Ltd.

"If these bottles have been stored upright there is every chance they will be drinkable," he says.

The fact the temperature will have been consistently low will also work in the whisky's favour. Fluctuating temperatures are worse because they cause the cork to contract and expand, which could allow air in.

If the whisky is drinkable, experts say it will taste different from what is on sale today. This is because the "Rare Old" brand of Mackinlay is not made any more. Also, different casks are used to make whisky now and it is blended differently.

Question mark floor plan of BBC Television Centre
A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

"Whiskies back then - a harder age - were all quite heavy and peaty as that was the style," says Whyte & Mackay's master blender Richard Paterson.

If the team of explorers are unable to retrieve a full bottle, they are hoping to use a syringe to extract some of the contents.

"We might get enough to be able to take a stab at recreating it," says Mr Paterson.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I once tried some whiskey a friend acquired fortuitously that was a 12 yr old batch that was some 50 yrs. old. Whether it was a good batch of whiskey in particular, i'm not certain; but it was amazing! Would pay some good money to try 100 yr. whiskey regardless what experts say!
Brian j. mucha, buffalo, new york USA

After 100 years, keep the whisky on ice. Its from a bygone age, let sleeping dogs lie. Sombody might try to make millions out of the find.
C M Sherriff , totnes devon uk

I think it will be a complete waste of time as the whisky will have turned to water through condensation, and not having the cork wetted every couple of years. Also, the whisky will have expanded and will have been in contact with the cork and damaged it.
Joihn, durham

I like to have a whisky to relax after a hard's days work. This is a blend no longer made, so if they can get a sample. I for one would be more than happy to try it. That is if they could recreate it, to as near the original blend.
John Williams, Barnsley South Yorks United Kingdom

Wow, have always been interested in Shackleton's story and this is such a fun twist to the tale. Would love to taste the whiskey and its interesting to know that it was a stronger taste back then.
Melanie, chelmsford

Do they need any volunteers for the tasting?
Brian, Dingwall

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