Personally, I love a spirit with a proper backstory. Good spirits are always a win, but when you can put that spirit into historical context or talk about the care and attention that went into its production, that adds a layer of enjoyment that goes beyond what you can get from a blind taste test. So when I spotted this bottle of Shackleton Blended Malt Scotch Whisky (most famous for its association with a legendary Antarctic expedition) I couldn’t wait to give it a review.
Modern whisky drinkers tend to gravitate towards spirits produced in-house by specific distilleries, but in the early years of scotch whisky much more emphasis was placed on blenders and bottlers. Spirits merchants would source whisky from one or more distilleries, blend them together (often using some secondary maturation process) and sell them under their own brand name. This is how the famous Johnnie Walker brand started, and they still source their spirits from other facilities and blend them together to create the perfect flavor profile to this day.
Charles Mackinlay started down that same path in 1815, registering as a wine merchant in Leith, Scotland near the water on the northern edge of Edinburgh. Originally, the shop was an agent for a brand of blended whisky called Macfarlane’s but in 1847 the shop saw the opportunity for increased profits if they sourced and bottled their own spirits under their own brand name. Thus, “Original Mackinlay Scotch Whisky” was born.
Demand for their product was excellent, and led to the company building their own distillery to help source enough spirits for their booming blended whisky business. In 1892 they helped build the Glen Mhor distillery in Inverness and, as a result, their bottles feature the words “Leith & Inverness” in cursive writing on the bottom of the label.
Those who know about Mackinlay (other than whisky nerds) probably know the name from it’s association with Sir Ernest Shackleton’s first polar expedition in 1907. In an effort to bolster the team’s morale, Shackleton purchased 25 cases of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt product (a single malt strain of whisky from the Glen Mhor distillery) and brought them on his attempt to reach the South Pole. The expedition turned back about 97 miles from the pole in a decision to save the lives of his men but was still the closest anyone had ever been at the time. 100 years later, three crates of that exact whisky were discovered preserved in ice below Shackleton’s camp in Antarctica.
The brand continued to be a family owned business until 1961, when it was purchased by a string of different distillery conglomerates eventually leading to Whyte & Mackay and finally the Philippines-based Emperador Inc, which is currently owned by the billionaire Andrew Lim Tan.
- Learn More: What Is Scotch Whisky?
As mentioned in the history of the brand, this was the whisky that Sir Ernest Shackleton took with him on his first polar expedition in 1907. There were twenty five cases of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt that left with the crew, and about a century later three of those crates were discovered buried under Shackleton’s base in Antarctica and returned to New Zealand to be carefully thawed out and preserved. In 2011, three of those bottles were purchased by Whyte & Mackay master blender Richard Paterson, who attempted to reverse engineer the flavor profile of those bottles and re-create something that closely matched what Shackleton and his men would have enjoyed all those years ago on that expedition.
The biggest difference that I’ll note is that the original bottles were a single source spirit that only used a single malt whisky from the Glen Mhor distillery. This recreation is a blended malt whisky, meaning that it uses a blend of single malt whiskies from different sources to create the desired flavor profile.
For these single malt whiskies, the production process is relatively straightforward and legally defined. Distilleries start with a crop of 100% barley which has been “malted” (allowed to partially germinate). This creates enzymes within the barley that allow for the starchy proteins within the grain to be converted naturally into fermentable sugars. These grains are milled, cooked, and then fermented with yeast to create a mildly alcoholic liquid.
In the Scottish tradition, this mildly alcoholic liquid is then batch distilled twice in copper pot stills, allowing the distillers to concentrate the alcohol within the final product and selectively capture the elements that they want to have in their whisky. Once distilled, the spirits are matured for a minimum of three years in oak barrels (usually previously used American bourbon barrels) before being considered a proper single malt whisky.
For this blended malt whisky, a number of different strains of single malt spirits are combined together to create the desired final flavor profile. Note that this is usually considered a higher quality than other “blended whisky” offerings (which can also use raw grain alcohol in their process) since only single malt spirits can be used, and also would recreate the care and attention that went into the bottles that originally traveled with Shackleton.
There are times when a boring bottle design is an indication of a slap-dash cheap production process, and there are times when it actually might be a smart way to tie-in the product with some kind of historical context. I feel like this is a case of the latter — especially given a couple context clues about how much money they spent on this bottle.
Overall, the design is normal and boring for a whisky bottle: a cylindrical body, straight walls, rounded shoulder, medium length neck, and capped with a cork stopper. But there are some changes that indicate that the company didn’t just grab some off-the-shelf bottles for their product. First is the color of the bottle, which is tinted slightly blue in an homage to the polar expedition and the bitterly cold ice, and is a deviation from the normal clear or brown glass you’d expect. There’s also the fact that the name “SHACKLETON” is embossed into the glass itself around the shoulder of the bottle as well as an embossed quote about exploration on the back. Embossing requires custom molds and can be somewhat expensive.
Moving on to the label, I feel like this is also a good balance and well designed. There’s enough in the overall shape of the label and the choice of font to make this feel like a historical bottle, but the addition of a map of Antarctica as a background helps not only remind people of the context for this spirit but also help draw shopper’s eyes to this baby blue bottle in a sea of white labels.
First thing to note is that the whisky is a beautiful amber color when you pour it into the glass — the bottle adds a bit of blue tinge that slightly darkens the actual color. The aroma coming off the glass is deliciously fruity and inviting, with peaches, strawberry, confectioner’s sugar, dried apricots, and apple fruits coming through clearly alongside a bit of vanilla and a hint of caramel that just adds some depth.
Taking a sip, the first note I get is that good traditional malty flavor — it’s like a slice of sourdough bread or some oatmeal. Mixed in is some vanilla, caramel, brown sugar, and butterscotch that makes for a sweet and delicious spirit. Unfortunately, I don’t see many of the fruity components that showed up in the aroma translated into the flavor, save for a bit of dried apricot that lingers near the short and crisp finish. Throughout the whole flavor profile there’s also a tiny wisp of peat smoke wafting through the other notes, adding the impression of a campfire without overpowering any of the other components.
There are usually one or two commenters a week who lament that I try scotch whisky on ice. I mainly do it because that’s how some people actually enjoy it, and to give a proper review I need to represent the flavors in a manner in which people actually drink it. But in this case, hold your comments — because the manufacturer explicitly says that this whisky is something that should be tried over ice, partly in an homage to the polar expedition on which it was originally used.
On the aroma, the fruitier notes have significantly decreased (as you’d expect) — but surprisingly, the added ice has actually accentuated those notes in the flavor. I’m getting more of the lighter and floral components with each sip; specifically: flower blossoms, apple, banana, pear, and dried apricot coming through loud and clear. It’s almost like the ice was just enough to let those components really flourish.
This is one of those rare times when added ice actually makes a scotch lighter and more floral without compromising overall flavor, and I’m honestly impressed at how they pulled it off.
This is a well executed blended malt whisky. The aroma is fantastic, the flavors are delicious, and the whole experience is smooth and enjoyable. Extra kudos for the wonderful party trick they have been able to pull off: accentuating the fruity and floral notes in the spirit when adding some ice. Especially when you add in the historical context for this whisky, I think it is an absolute winner that deserves a taste.
|Mackinlay's Shackleton Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Classification: Blended Malt Scotch Whiskey
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $35 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
A recreation of a historical whisky that actually tastes great and has a fantastic story to go with it.