shackleton whisky

It started with one of those trying-to-be-smart-but-comes-across-as-naff lifehacker posts, this one telling us how to graduate to better whiskey. It pains me to type that ‘e’ especially since some of their suggestions are not American or Irish. Basically they’re saying if you like a certain whisky, then you may want to try another, hopefully better, one:

  • like bulleit, try michter’s
  • like bulleit rye, try whistlepig farmstock
  • like jameson, try green spot
  • like laphroaig 10, try octomore
  • like macallan 12, try yamazaki 12
  • already like yamazaki 12, try amrut cask strength

I can’t comment much on bourbon or rye, because I don’t have enough exposure to them and basically my suggestion centres around blanton’s. At the risk of offending my friends who like jameson, I won’t drink it because it’s pretty terrible. I agree with green spot, and I’d go as far as saying move even further up and try redbreast. I love laphroaig the distillery but for peat monsters I prefer ardbeg any day, and yes octomore certainly.

I think the trend to like/buy/order japanese whisky by certain people is a fad. These are the people who queue for hours for the cronut, go gluten-free because goop says so, and are currently coughing up $37 for 2.5 gallons of raw water. Cough is the right word, because said raw water may come with a bunch of unfriendly friends. An anecdote is one of mm’s relatives, who went hunting for japanese whisky during their latest trip to hokkaido, when we’ve never seen him drink whisky or express any interest in whisky before. He says he’s looking for it because “everyone else is” and may be he can find a rare bottle to sell. Argh!! These people jumping on the bandwagon is the reason why there is zero supply of non-NAS japanese whisky.


The reason the lifehacker article caught my eye is the suggestion that if you like Johnnie Walker, try Shackleton. First of all, show me someone who likes JW, especially red and black. Last time I was served JW black I almost spit it out. So the suggestion to try Shackleton is interesting, because it’s an interesting whisky. I remember a little about its history.

In addition to the promotional video, there’s a good account in the NYT, even though there are passages that made my teeth grate. Read this about Richard Paterson, Whyte & Mackay’s master blender:

the sight of someone dropping ice cubes into a whiskey glass or knocking back a shot without taking sufficient time to savor it makes him furious. The whisky he threatened to kill me over was not any old tipple, either.







Anyway, in 1907, Shackleton and team tried to go to the south pole. Amongst the supplies they brought with them were 25 cases of whisky, 12 of brandy and 6 of port. Between four people. The expedition was ultimately a failure, although the team got to 112 miles from the pole, the furthest south at that time. When they turned back and sailed home in 1909, they left behind supplies that included cases of whisky and:

dried spinach, mint, stewed kidneys, oxtail soup, India relish, mutton cutlets in tomato sauce, Irish brawn, marrow fat, stewed rump steaks, tripe, concentrated egg powder, kippered mackerel, minced collops, and redcurrants.

Some of the stuff were pilfered but since 1990 the area around the hut where they stayed is controlled by the NZ-based Antarctic Heritage Trust. In 2007, three cases of whisky were discovered in the permafrost outside the hut; in 2010 these were chiselled from the ice and one case taken to Canterbury Museum.

The whisky that the Shackleton expedition brought with them was “Rare old Highland malt whisky, blended and bottled by Chas. Mackinlay & Co.” Mackinlay was eventually bought by Whyte & Mackay, which was then sold to an Indian billionaire, Vijay Mallya. Mallya’s private plane brought three bottles “home” to Scotland in 2011, where master blender Paterson and James Pryde, Whyte & Mackay’s chief chemist, extracted sample liquid from the original bottles for analysis. After one hundred years, there was a possibility that the whisky had turned bad. But luckily no. They found that the whisky was a blended malt, most likely from the defunct Glen Mhor distillery, which was owned by Mackinlay. The team was also able to ascertain that the water was from Loch Ness, the peat from the Orkneys, and the whisky was aged in american white oak sherry casks. 47.3% abv.

To everyone’s surprise, the whisky was light and fruity, and not smoky at all. There was peat, but it was subtle. Even Paterson, writing beforehand, expected a a heavy, peaty whisky that was the style back then. Plus there’s the image of Shackleton the macho explorer.

Sir Ernest Shackleton occupies a similar place to another with the same name, Ernest Hemingway. Larger than life, big, brash. A womaniser. The intrepid explorer. The guardian described Shackleton as having the essence of:

death-defying, pipe-smoking, god-among-men masculinity.

There’s a certain romanticism associated with explorers of that era, and soon modern marketing came into play. It was decided to replicate the whisky, and use the story to sell it. Paterson found stock from Glen Mohr and blended it with Dalmore and more than 20 other whiskies and so the Discovery edition was born. £150 and it’s no longer available. The second edition, Journey, inspired by the 2013 expedition that retraced another of Shackleton’s expeditions, is available for £110.


The one that I think lifehacker meant as a replacement for JW is neither of these, but the mainstream, more accessible, version. It still retains the notes of vanilla, honey and orchard fruits of the earlier editions, but possibly using younger whiskies. Introduced in 2017 initially as duty free only and now more widely available, it seems to be positioned neatly in the premium blend category and at £34.95 is something I’d try, if only once. I’d like to try it against Naked Grouse, as the JW black step-up. At £27.95, it’s at a sweet price point. Then again, HP12 is around £30, and wins everything.