National Heritage Week was held from the 22nd to 30th August this year in Ireland.
It is a wonderful occasion celebrating the rich built – varied natural and diverse cultural heritage of Ireland with events taking place in all the counties.
Attending one of these events was the suggestion of the better half a few weeks ago and I spotted an outing to Athy in County Kildare that would satisfy both our interests – tick a few of the heritage boxes – as well as a little whiskey on the way!
The built heritage
Athy Market House was originally built around 1730 – subsequently became the Town Hall – and now houses the Shackleton Museum.
The historical heritage
Ernest Shackleton – arguably one of the most famous and heroic figures from the polar expedition era of the early 1900’s – was born in Kilkea County Kildare only a few miles from Athy which now has the only permanent exhibition to his exploits in the frozen south.
The whisky heritage
Shackleton made 4 trips to Antarctica during his lifetime. His attempt to reach the South Pole in 1907 ended in failure – he turned back with only 97 miles to go to save the lives of himself and his fellow crew members – but his heroics – and achieving the furthest south ever at that time – launched him into fame.
What often gets over-looked in these polar daring do adventures however are the mundane things – like a wee dram for the crew.
In the rush to safely evacuate all the expedition members off the frozen landscape before another antarctic winter set in some items were left behind. These items sat underneath the hut the crew lived in for almost a year during their attempt to reach the pole. In 2007 – hut restoration workers discovered cases of whisky. These were carefully excavated from the ice where they had lain for 100 years. After many negotiations – some bottles were returned to Scotland from whence they came – sampled – tasted – designated excellent! – and a decision taken to recreate them. The result is simply stunning.
Mackinlay’s Old Highland Malt is a superb whisky boosted by an even more extraordinary story. I for one would not have left any bottles behind after having tasted it! Rich – smooth – lightly peated – strong yet balanced – it rates as one of the best whiskies I’ve had.
The second whisky
In 1914 Shackleton again returned to the polar regions to attempt the first trans-polar crossing of Antarctica. They didn’t even make it to land as the ship got stuck in the ice – drifted – got crushed – sank – leaving the men to camp on the ice until reaching open sea where they sailed in their lifeboats to the relative safety on the uninhabited Elephant Island. From there – Shackleton – together with a crew of 5 including Tom Crean from Kerry and Tim McCarthy from Kinsale – made the most daring sea crossing ever attempted in an open boat across 800 miles of treacherous ocean to get help at the whaling station in South Georgia. Unbelievably they successfully made this crossing and went on to rescue all 28 crew members after almost 2 years cut off from the rest of the world. This was undoubtedly Shackleton’s finest hour.
Whisky was also on this voyage. Sadly the chances of finding an intact bottle after having been crushed by ice and submerged in the Antarctic Ocean for 100 years are pretty slim – but then you need not worry. An easy stroll down to your local whisky emporium will suffice.
Vat 69 was the chosen brand on this ill fated voyage.
Now it isn’t a patch on Old Mackinlay’s – nor is it as pricey – but it is surprisingly smooth and tasty for what is an entry level blend created by William Sanderson of Leith back in 1882 and now in the Diageo stable. I can see why it has been a popular tipple for over 130 years!
Whatever else about Shackleton – as The Cramps used to sing – he had “good taste” when it came to whisky!
The written heritage
Those that like a good read whilst sipping their favourite dram may be pleased to know both these whiskies come with books!
Shackleton’s Whisky by Neville Peat is not only the story of Shackleton’s daring adventures – but the story of how the whisky that eventually bore his name miraculously came to be found and ultimately recreated for our enjoyment today. It’s also the story of the ups and downs of the whisky industry in Scotland as well as it’s enduring legacy.
Seaspray and Whisky by Norman Freeman is a different kettle of book as is the whisky it features. A salty tale of seamen taking freely from the cargo of Vat 69 they should have been safely transporting across the Atlantic aboard an old freighter. Anyone who has ever been on a sea voyage can relate to the tall tales – larger than life characters and shore based exploits that the crew of the MV Allenwell indulge in – it certainly brought a smile to my face and a few memories of my brief time in the merchant fleet!
So there you go.
A tale of 2 whiskies in 2 books.
I hope you enjoy them all as much as I did!