Whisky and ice

Dunedin author Neville Peat sure has a nose for a story, writes Shane Gilchrist.

Neville Peat might boast a surname redolent of a type of turf used to impart flavour to Scotch, yet he has done something no connoisseur would consider. He has mixed whisky with ice.

The Dunedin author's latest book, Shackleton's Whisky, was inspired by the 2007 discovery in the Antarctic of three cases of Mackinlay's Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky under the hut Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men built on their 1907-1909 expedition.

The finding of the whisky, imbedded in ice for 100 years at the picturesque Cape Royds on Ross Island, prompted Peat to embark on his own extensive expedition. And though the project hasn't been quite as daunting a task as Peat's previous publication, The Tasman: Biography of an Ocean (2010), it nonetheless required rigorous research.

Peat's journey from inspiration to culmination has ranged from the ice floes of the Antarctic to Scottish distilleries, encompassing historic expeditions, previously unpublished diary entries, and modern scientific methodology, as well as New Zealand's role in protecting the southern continent.

Equally, as Peat is quick to admit, Shackleton's Whisky offered him a fresh excuse for adventure, as well as an opportunity to indulge in his long-held passion for the Antarctic.

Though Peat has completed a wide range of titles, including regional natural histories, New Zealand guides and travelogues, his publishing roots are embedded in the ice of the southern continent.

His first book, Ice On My Palette, an examination of the paintings of RNZAF official artist Maurice Conly, was published in 1977; Snow Dogs: The Huskies of Antarctica, came a year later and was based on two summer seasons at Scott Base.

He has also written about the New Zealand Antarctic Society and the Antarctic relationship between New Zealand and the United States.

Given his knowledge of the continent, and those who have braved its extreme climate for various reasons, Peat was mindful of the plethora of books on the subject of Shackleton, the British explorer most famous for his transantarctic expedition of 1914-17, regarded as an epic feat of stamina and survival. (Shackleton's attempt to cross the Antarctic was foiled when his ship, Endurance, was crushed in pack ice).

His subsequent 16-day, 1500km journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia, to seek rescue for the main expedition body, is regarded as one of the greatest small-boat voyages ever accomplished.)

However, Peat was more interested in other events.

His interest piqued by that whisky discovery, the author instead sought to revisit Shackleton's Nimrod Expedition of 1907-09, the highlight of which was the "Southern Journey" of 1908-09, when Shackleton and three of his men went further south than anyone before them, reaching latitude 88.23S, longitude 162 E before turning back.

In the history of exploration, the so-near-yet-so-far effort of Shackleton's team is a celebrated turning point.

Shackleton wrote at the time: "We have shot our bolt ...

homeward bound at last.

Whatever regrets may be, we have done our best. Beaten the South record by 366 miles [589km], the North by 77 miles [124km]." (On their eventual return 120 days after setting off from Nimrod Hut, the party had traversed 2700km, averaging 22km per day.)

Yet, despite the historic adventuring of Shackleton and company, Peat was keen to focus more light on the day-to-day, domestic view of life within an Antarctic hut roughly the size of a bus, that sheltered those inside from winds sometimes topping 160kmh.

"There aren't that many books that look into what Shackleton refers to as the 'inside view' of men on expeditions.

"Some biographies talk a little bit about the niggles among the members of the team, but in the end you are left with this cosy view of the expedition team. But the more I looked into the unpublished diaries, the more I found these niggles."

Peat writes of the "dark months of winter" in 1908; come the end of April, the 15-strong party wouldn't see the sun again for four months. No wonder there were a few issues among men who, in pairs, shared cubicles with names such as No 1 Park Lane and The Rogues' Retreat.

"Little things that wouldn't bother people in normal life ...

well, with 15 men in a hut there were bound to be issues. At one point, Shackleton is said to have threatened to get a gun and shoot one member of his party," Peat says.

"I just wanted to find out how the expedition ticked on a day-to-day, interpersonal basis. We all know how far south they got.

The stories are unbelievable to those of us who live in a reasonable climate - we are all familiar with the expeditions of that era, many of which involved tremendous hardship - and that was up there among the hardest.

"My approach was to do it in a narrative style, to keep the story flowing, starting before the Nimrod expedition, through that expedition and on to the present day.

"I also liked the idea of linking it back to Scotland, via the whisky thread."

Therein lies a great irony.

Shackleton rarely touched alcohol.

A complex man, an adventurer who loved poetry, Shackleton was involved in the Temperance movement in his younger days. Though he didn't drink, he understood the importance of expedition morale.

To keep his men in good spirit, he found space for good spirit - 25 cases of Mackinlay's Rare Old Highland Malt Whisky to be exact.

It was stored in the hold of the Nimrod along with ponies, building gear, food and a couple of barrels of beer brewed by none other than J. Speight & Co, of Dunedin, all of which left Lyttelton Harbour on January 1, 1908.

"I love those contrasts," Peat says. "Here is someone who could order 25 cases - 300 bottles - of whisky when he didn't really believe in it. But he knew he had to keep his men on track."

Though the discovery of the cases beneath Nimrod Hut has been well documented, Peat's aim was to further illuminate the whisky connection in the context of the 1907-09 expedition. In doing so, he offers more than a whiff of the world of its makers, Chas.

Mackinlay and Co, and its distillery at Glen Mhor, Inverness.

"The records of the Glen Mhor distillery aren't that detailed, so you can't be sure, but around 1897 they were laying down the basis of the whisky that Shackleton ordered 10 years later.

"It's amazing the whisky even survived. When I was wandering around that area in the 1970s, in those huts in Antarctica, we'd all look at the stuff on the shelves and think 'Oh, I wouldn't eat that' ... but below our feet was something that hadn't really changed.

"People are truly amazed at how the whisky has stood up.

Chemistry has shown there hasn't really been any degradation of the whisky."

In detailing the preservation of that whisky, Peat also needed to disclose the context by which it was discovered. As he puts it, there were "a lot of strands to the story".

One such strand is New Zealand's role in the 50-year protection of historic huts on Ross Island, in McMurdo Sound.

The restoration of Nimrod Hut is in no small part due to the establishment in 1987 of the Christchurch-based Antarctic Heritage Trust, which in turn led to the Ross Sea Heritage Restoration Project, launched in the summer of 2001-02.

In 2006, two seasons into the trust's fully-fledged restoration effort, a conservator entrusted with painstakingly removing the ice beneath Nimrod Hut discovered some wooden cases (with the barely discernible words "rare", "old" and "whisky") entombed in the remaining ice. With winter approaching, it took until January 2007 for efforts to resume.

James Blake, the 20-year-old son of the late Sir Peter Blake, and restoration team leader Al Fastier were the first people in a century to catch the aroma of malt whisky when they managed to remove ice around a case.

However, a combination of climatic, political and business reasons meant that box remained in situ for another three years. Eventually, in early February 2010, five cases of liquor (including two of Australian brandy) were removed from the ice.

"Only one case of whisky was permitted to come back to New Zealand," Peat explains. "And that is at Canterbury Museum, where it will remain until it is reunited with three bottles, which were sent from the museum to Scotland."

Those three bottles, once completely thawed, were put aboard the private jet of Indian billionaire Dr Vijay Mallya, of Whyte & Mackay, the new owner of the Mackinlay label, and flown to Scotland where chemists and connoisseurs alike put the liquor to the test.

"Sure, whisky that old has been sampled before but never has it been in one place and in such untouched condition. That has held great interest to scientists as well as to the whisky industry and also those involved in heritage." (Renowned whisky expert Richard Paterson, whose nose was once insured by Lloyds of London for $US2.6 million, apparently approves of the drop.)"It was a challenge to get that case of whisky out of there - as it should be.

This level of protection of artefacts is relatively new under the Antarctic Treaty," says Peat, who will contribute some of the royalties from Shackleton's Whisky to the Antarctic Heritage Trust.

"The other cases - and I don't want to say exactly where they are - remain on Ross Island.

The cases of brandy are there as well.

"There is one more step in this story - and that is to get the bottles back to Cape Royds.

"Various small samples were taken from the bottles and that can never be replaced, but the bottles will go back and that will be a challenge for the Antarctic Heritage Trust: how will they best safeguard it?"


The author

Neville Peat, the author of more than 30 books ranging from natural histories, biographies, New Zealand guides, histories of Antarctica to studies of birds, lives on Otago Peninsula.

In the late 1970s, he spent two summers at Scott Base, New Zealand's Antarctic Station on Ross Island, as a journalist and photographer and Shackleton's Whisky is his fifth book on Antarctic themes.

Peat's collaboration with Brian Patrick, Wild Dunedin: Enjoying the Natural History of New Zealand's Wildlife Capital, won the Natural Heritage category at the 1996 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and Wild Fiordland: Discovering the Natural History of a World Heritage Area, also written with Patrick, was short-listed for the same prize in 1997.

Peat won a 2007 Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers' Fellowship of $100,000, the nation's largest literary award.

He used it to help fund his 2010 publication, The Tasman: Biography of an Ocean.


Read it

Shackleton's Whisky (Random House/Longacre, $39.99) will be published on October 5.


Give away

The Otago Daily Times has 10 copies of Shackleton's Whisky, by Neville Peat, to give away.
To go in the draw for one, write your name, address and daytime phone number on the back of an envelope and send it to Shackleton's Whisky, ODT Editorial Features, Response Bag 500012, Dunedin, or email playtime@odt.co.nz with Shackleton's Whisky in the subject line, to arrive before Thursday.