Shackleton, Benjamin and Baudrillard walk into a bar

A lot has already been written about the discovery, recovery and restoration of the cases of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt that Ernest Shackleton took with him on an expedition to the South Pole over 100 years ago. It was buried under the ice for over a century, before being dug out and returned to its point of origin. A time capsule of whiskies gone by.

As the Mackinlay’s brand is a property of Whyte & Mackay, some of it ended up back in the hands of their master blender, Richard Paterson, who sampled it, presumably took a few notes, and then set out to recreate it as faithfully as he could.

First a few facts: It’s bottled at 47.3% – the original strength – and both the recreation and the whisky it is based on have been sampled by Dave Broom, another top whisky tasting expert, who has independently verified the likeness.

Clutch and I have each done a tasting and have ended up concluding that it’s very nice indeed. However, what we can’t tell you is how similar it is to the “real thing”. And in a way, that’s absolutely fine. Because we will never know – and it’s perhaps more interesting that way.

The work of art in the age of whisky reproduction
The whole situation got me thinking about recreations, facsimiles and copies. I sampled another recreation recently, and found myself not wanting to know what the original had been like. Had it been absolutely identical, or completely different – I would have been disappointed.

Walter Benjamin’s much quoted 1936 essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction‘ talks about the “aura” of an authentic work, and the difficulty faced by a replication in approaching that sense of authenticity. The technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition, the context of its production and the cultural meanings it holds.

In other words, this is not a whisky that allows us any real insight into Shackleton’s adventures or the man himself, and nor does it allow us any real access into his world. It’s a souvenir from the gift shop, if you like. There is the “real thing”, and then there is “just a copy”. And no matter how similar they are, there is a real difference between owning or drinking the copy – and owning or drinking the original, which must be (one assumes) utterly priceless.

There is no authentic original
But if you go beyond Benjamin, you meet Jean Baudrillard, who talks about the ‘simulacrum‘ – an object that is a copy for which there exists no original. And that’s really what this whisky is – since there is for us no reference. No comparison to be made. This is the whisky itself; we know it’s “just a copy” – but equally, we know that it is its own marker of authenticity.

Because if we go into a gift shop and buy a poster of the Mona Lisa, having just seen the original hanging in the gallery – we know the extent to which our purchase is a copy. How it differs as well as how it is similar. But that’s not our experience here.

And no matter how trustworthy and reliable our authenticators and “forgers” might be (and they are the finest the whisky profession has to offer), it almost doesn’t matter what the “real” Shackleton whisky is like – because for us, it is just an idea. And we buy and taste this Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt simulacrum in the knowledge that what we have bought is access to an idea – a social object around which we can tell stories of adventures, and the miraculous discovery of a museum piece that we can never directly experience.

And while we tell these stories, we can share this whisky as if it connects us with the legend of Shackleton and his epic quest for knowledge, adventure and, ultimately, lasting significance. Whether it is an exact match – or even a close approximation of the whisky he brought with him is less than irrelevant. It is unknowable.

But what can be known is the quality and the experience of this simulacrum. The copy. What I actually have come to think of as the “real” Mackinlay. And the good news is that it is excellent.

The taste of reconstruction
Nose: Lemon grass, pencil shavings, cinnamon sticks, ground pepper, touch of thin woodsmoke
Palate: Fresh lime soda, acid drops, sherbert, paprika with a touch of poached pear, plums and nectarine
Finish: Medium. A little parma violet, some of the pepper and a little residual warmth of the fruit.

Water softens it considerably, but doesn’t take anything away from it – simply gives it more body and emphasises the sweetness while mellowing out the pepper.

A superb and surprising whisky from the Whyte & Mackay stable. Well worth experiencing. But you are not only buying a whisky of quality and pedigree, you’re also buying a story to share and, if not an actual heritage artefact, then at least a piece of history.

And just as Shackleton’s failure to reach the Pole on this expedition does not detract from his place in the imagination as a central figure in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, our inability to sample the whisky he brought with him does not diminish our connection with that story, and the symbolic (and thoroughly rewarding) experience of a dram created in his honour.

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