Reviving Old Spirits

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Having covered four of the five continents, we can now turn to Asia. Mackinlay, which has since been acquired by Whyte & Mackay, a company founded in Glasgow in 1844 by a chemical manufacturer and a ham curer—a marriage made in heaven for the creation of delicious mood-altering substances—is now owned by Vijay Mallya, the billionaire chairman of India’s United Breweries Group, among other hugely profitable businesses. Mallya was so thrilled to find that he had a connection to Shackleton that he provided his private jet (probably not a hardship since he owns an airline) so that three of the thawed bottles could be flown to Scotland for chemical analysis. And this is where we pause to remind all you youngsters out there to be cool and stay in school. If you win that science fair, maybe you can get a job like James Pryde has. Pryde, a former cell biologist, is now chief chemist at Whyte & Mackay, and he led the team that analyzed everything there is to analyze about Shackleton’s whisky. Utilizing biopsy needles, thermocouples, carbon dating techniques, gas chromatographs, mass spectrometers, and, yes, their noses and mouths, the team determined that the liquid in those bottles began as a single-malt from the now-defunct Glen Mhor distillery, that the peat for the malting came from the Orkney Islands, that it was aged in sherry casks made of American oak, that the water used to dilute it to bottling strength was from Loch Ness, and that it still tasted mighty fine.

And that’s when the real work began. Richard Paterson, master distiller and blender at Whyte & Mackay, spent eight weeks experimenting with various whiskies— Balblair, Benriach, Dalmore, Glenfarclas, Jura, and Pulteney, and of course some old Glen Mhor—until he had a close approximation of the Shackleton whisky (the extricated bottles have since been returned to Antarctica). The final blend consists of some two dozen whiskies (so, unlike the original Scotch on which it is based, it is not a single-malt), the oldest of which is probably the Glen Mhor.

Of course if all that sounds like a lot of work just to get a new whisky that tastes like an old one, there’s someone else you’ve got to meet. Ted Breaux, an environmental chemist from Louisiana, is almost single-handedly responsible for the reintroduction of real absinthe to America. In 1996, Breaux got his hands on a bottle of the anise-flavored spirit that was made before absinthe was banned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1912, largely on the basis of the presence of supposedly insanity-inducing levels of a substance called thujone, and ran it through a gas chromatograph. There was almost no thujone. It turns out that something in the distillation process removes the chemical compound. Now, less than a decade after Breaux’s findings were confirmed, there are quite a few well-made American absinthes, notably from St. George Spirits, Pacific Distillery, and Ridge Distillery. Needless to say, there is an increasing number of excellent imports as well, including—from France—Vieux Pontarlier and, of course, Breaux’s own Jade bottlings (the 1901 is particularly good).

The history of mankind is intertwined with the history of alcohol, but we are the luckiest people who’ve ever put lips to bottle, urn, or coupe. The unprecedented widespread interest in distilling traditions, combined with the advantages of modern technology, has given us a wealth of fascinating flavors to study. Academics have never been so rewarding.

James Rodewald started tending bar in college, never had a hangover until he was a reporter at Sports Illustrated, and always chose quality over quantity during his time as drinks editor at Gourmet magazine. This is his second article for Gourmet Live. His first was about bartenders’ hangover remedies.

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