Sunday, April 13, 2014

Shackleton's Whisky: A Tale Of Shame And Redemption Part 2

This is the second part of a story that I posted in the middle of last year, about how I failed to appreciate Shackleton's whisky, behaved boorishly, etc.  I said I was going to post the rest of it 'next week,' which turned out to be a lie. Here it is, eight months late but moving fast, and I hope nobody has been to inconvenienced by the delay.  You may wish to read the first part to get up to speed.

As I said, the story of Shackleton's whisky has legs in the popular press, and over the ensuing months I was unable to escape it.  I sought it out, in fact - partly to determine the enormity of my transgression, and also partly in my usual capacity as Antarctic History Nerd.  All I knew after that night at the Darkroom was that some whisky had been found under Shackleton's hut, there was a bottle of some derivation of the same whisky on the top shelf at the Darkroom, and I had failed, publicly and disgracefully, to show an appreciation for  that set of circumstances. I was pretty sure that it couldn't be the actual same whisky (could it?) but I felt a geeky sort of shame that I didn't know what it really was.

The full story, it turns out, is absolutely fantastic, and it's told best by Mr Neville Peat of Broad Bay, Dunedin, in his recent book Shackleton's Whisky.  It seems that in 2007, a team from the NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust were fossicking about under the hut that Shackleton's crew built in 1908 during the Nimrod expedition.  This is the expedition, you will recall, that earned Shackleton his knighthood - he and two others reached a new Furthest South, within 100 miles of the Pole, and Douglas Mawson, that brash Antipodean, led a team to as near the South Magnetic Pole as really makes no odds, so they claimed that for the Empire. A team from the expedition made a first ascent of Erebus, and they pioneered the use of motor vehicles and ponies in the Antarctic, with mixed results.  They also, it would appear, drank a lot of whisky - and it was a case of this whisky that the team from the Antarctic Heritage Trust dug up in 2007.

There followed a remarkable series of events involving the Canterbury Museum, the descendants of the distillers who made the original whisky at the end of the nineteenth century, a whisky-taster whose nose is insured for some astronomical sum, and an international courier flying to Scotland with a priceless bottle handcuffed to his wrist. It transpired that not only had this whisky survived its hundred-year freeze undamaged, it was actually really rather delicious - so White and McKay, who now own the company that made the whisky in the first place, set about replicating it and in 2010 they released a limited edition of the result.  Here was my answer - it was a dram of this replica that I had so rudely swilled at the Darkroom that shameful night.  In a strange way, learning the history of this drop made me feel a bit better - maybe I hadn't really tasted it, but at least now I knew what I'd missed.

Shackelton's Whisky

The actual person who was under the hut doing the fossicking was young James Blake, who as far as I can tell is as thoroughly decent a bloke as you could hope to meet. He's got the kind of honest, open grin that could sell oil to a Texan, if that's what he wanted to do, and this grin appears in a photograph in Mr Peat's book, shining out from under Sir Ernest's hut next to a case of the famous whisky.  As soon as I saw that photograph I hoped to meet the owner of this grin, because he looked like he could tell a yarn.  Since we both live in New Zealand, of course, that meeting soon happened in the normal course of events, without my really having to do anything.

Such a grin!
On tour last summer, we played a show as part of the festival commemorating the centenary of the return of Captain Scott's ship (minus, of course, Captain Scott) to the civilised world, which occurred in the port of Oamaru in February 1913. After the show, the grin appeared, closely followed by Mr Blake, who soon proved to be just as able a yarnsmith as I had hoped - he was at the festival to talk about what he'd been up to in Antarctica.  He's the kind of utterly impressive individual who does things like row a boat across the Tasman Sea and climb up high mountains - bold, romantic endeavours of the sort that divide any given sample of dinner guest into two mutually irreconcilable camps, rallying under banners inscribed, respectively, 'why?' and 'why the hell not?' I have enormous sympathy for such people because folk music is a bit like that too, only less dangerous.

As though rowing a boat across the Tasman Sea wasn't challenging enough, James revealed that he had raised the degree of difficulty considerably for himself by listening to this song on his ipod 'the whole way.' He said it kept him sane, and my heart went out to him because it just seemed so wildly unlikely that anything I wrote could impact positively on anybody's mental health - you poor thing, I thought.  Then he said some kind things about our show and how it captured the mood and the tone of the huts he'd been working on preserving down there on the ice, which was a lovely thing to say, and I felt sufficiently comfortable to share with him the tale of my disgraceful behavior with the whisky.  I can't remember what he said, but his tone was generally soothing and he was very nice about it. 

The encounter unsettled me - this was the chap who spent freezing weeks groveling around in the ice under the hut and actually found the whisky, got it out into the world for the rest of us to have and to hold.  By disrespecting the whisky, I felt like I'd let him down, and he just seemed like a really nice guy. And a guy who apparently had listened to one of my songs more times than any other human, including probably me - I felt like amends needed to be made. The only way to come back from this whisky incident, I decided,  was to sit down properly with a glass of the stuff, with a clear head and bright eye, among friends and with time to kill, in pleasant surroundings. In full knowledge of what I had before me, where it came from and what it meant, I could really do the thing justice. I would hold it up to the light to admire the amber glow. Swill it around in the glass to see it move. Sniff it. Pass it around. Warm it slightly in the palm. Pause, breathe, raise the glass, offer a toast to sweethearts and wives, and taste the hell out of it. Really savour that fucker. I felt like I owed some people.

There is actually some more to the story, in which I get right with the whisky, but I feel like posting significantly more that 1000 words on a Sunday would be churlish, so the rest will come later. When? Later.