Friday, July 26, 2013

Shackleton's Whisky: A tale of shame and redemption, part one

It will come as little surprise to many when I reveal that I have been somewhat interested lately in the storied history of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration.  This interest has had all sorts of agreeable side-effects, many of which are a direct result of tearing around the country over the past year or so telling some of these stories in barns, bar-rooms and back-country halls from Invercargill to Dargaville. It seems like the more you get up and tell stories, the more stories people want to tell you right back, so I've been hearing all kinds of tall tales from all kinds of people, which luckily is one of my favourite ways to pass the time. One of the stories that's been cropping up a lot lately is the one about Shackleton's Whisky, and it has become for me a tale, dear reader, of shame and redemption.
You've probably heard the tale yourself, even if your main source of news is, well, 'The News,' and not grizzled old taproom scholars in South Island bars.  It's a compelling story with a high degree of cross-over interest, and it tests well in a range of demographics, so it has had a good share of what media analysts call 'screen-time' over the past couple of years.  I heard about it in a bar.
It was near the end of a long tour in the winter, I recall, of 2012.  We'd just driven the usual loop - a bunch of nights in the North Island, an early morning ferry crossing playing old Neil Young songs to hung-over travelers in the bar they call the Karori Rip, followed by a dozen or so dates around the South Island, and when we do this, we don't tend to give ourselves a break. It's a lot of late nights and weird mornings; a typical day is an early start and a long drive followed by a scramble to set up the PA, run a soundcheck, play a show, sling some merch, pack down, load out, find the accom, bags the tops bunk then grab the throwaround  guitars and walk out to the darkness at the edge of town to find a quiet spot to sit up for the rest of the night trying to remember how to play old Neil Young songs.  Many days of this in succession on the standard pizza and whisky diet and there is a risk of becoming unhinged.
So I was perhaps a little unhinged as I sat at the bar of the Darkroom in Christchurch there, after the show, having a yarn with Jasper and T'Neale who own the place and trying to summon the motivation to go to bed like a decent human being. The Darkroom, you should understand, is a classy establishment with a discerning clientele and an impressive commitment to quality when it comes to the drinks list, and as my magpie eye strayed to the top shelf I espied something I had not seen before:

I mean, it didn't look exactly like this. It was on a shelf surrounded by other bottles, but it did say 'British Antarctic Expedition 1907' on the side.
This piqued my curiosity, naturally, and I politely asked Jasper what was going on here.
'Oh yeah, I was going to tell you about that actually.  It's a pretty cool story.  Apparently a few years ago they found this whisky under Shackleton's hut in Antarctica.'
'What, and that's it there?'
He could see that explaining the full story to me would take ages and require a certain amount of repetition, so he said something like 'Pretty much, yeah. More or less.'
'Can I have some?'
Jasper explained that it wasn't really for sale - they have a thing for regulars called the Adventurers Club (which of course led me to interrupt to tell him that that's funny, because we've got this thing called the Explorers Club, did I tell you about it? And he said yeah, I know, you just played in my bar) and the thing is you have to try twenty different drinks - not in the same night, obviously, for mental health and legal reasons, but gradually, over a period of perhaps months - and once you've tried these twenty different drinks, and only then, you get a dram of the Shackleton Whisky.
'Cor. So... can I have some?' Remember I was a little unhinged.  I think Jasper raised a single eyebrow to indicate that I would need to do better than that.
I marshaled a clever three-pronged argument - firstly, hadn't I just spent the past hour or so on stage - his stage - telling stories about Shackleton? Surely that put me in some sort of special interest category?  Secondly, Poor Me - which is an important prong for any argument, and the less specific the better I find, and thirdly (which I think actually sealed the deal) I indicated that I was game for earning the Shackleton Whisky by the conventional route, right then and there, which we could all agree would be a ludicrous idea but that's how strongly I felt about the matter.
One or all of the prongs worked, anyhow, and Jasper solemnly took the box from the self and the bottle from the box (how handsome it was!) and poured me a dram.
Now you should know that I am not anything of a gourmet. Things like food and whisky have only instrumental value to me - I carry a hipflask for motivational purposes, as Shackleton himself did, to hand off to band members in times of crisis to prevent mutiny.  On tour, I carry nuts and raisins in my pockets for the same reason, as fuel for myself and others, and results have so far been mixed but events have fallen out broadly in my favour. I like good food, but I will eat bad food if I have the hunger. I like good whisky, but I will drink bad whisky if I have the thirst.  I am, however, a total nerd for history and funny little talismans, so I was aware of the gravity of the moment.  But! I was a little unhinged.
I passed the glass around the band, and everyone took a sniff and sip with appropriate reverence. Adam McGrath, who can smell whisky ten miles away in a snowstorm, appeared as if by magic at my elbow (which is to say his belt was approximately at the level of my elbow; he's a big boy) and of course he needed a sip too, and by this time a small crowd had formed at the bar and there was a certain amount of polite jostling, people getting in each other's breathing space and so on, a bit of a 'what's going on here then' atmosphere and a level of encroachment on elbow room of the sort I can find unnerving at the end of a succession of late nights an weird mornings - a degree of anticipation building and a hum in the ears, and with the eyes of the band upon me, before a bar full of cultured palates, I felt a flush creep up my neck and a devil on my shoulder and when the glass appeared in my unhinged hand dear reader I tossed it back, disgracefully, like a cooking whisky.

There was a silence.  You know the kind. 
Jasper, bless him, did not hit me with a bottle or throw me into the street, but he did look Very Disappointed. I crawled into my sleeping bag that night feeling like the kind of barbarian who goes about the place breaking windows in churches to hear the smash, a loutish boor who appears at garden parties in a dirty anorak and hovers around the buffet table eating caviar with his mouth open and spilling Chianti on the corgis. What a dope! Upon finding the Holy Grail, the hapless pilgrim knocks it to the floor with his elbow and hides the pieces under a rug.  Obviously, I could never go back to The Darkroom.
That's the end of part one - The Shame - it got a little bit longer that I'd anticipated so I'll post the rest - The Redemption - next week. Or when I get around to writing it.

Update! Here it is.

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