The International Law of Antarctic Whiskey of Historical Value

A New Zealand expedition is planning to drill for one hundred year old whiskey in Antarctica, from two crates left behind by the Nimrod Expedition in 1909.

The Nimrod Expedition, lead by Sir Ernest Shackleton, came within 97 miles of the South Pole before they gave up and came home. They’d originally brought with them 25 crates of McKinlay’s scotch, but two were found to have been left behind in the expedition’s Cape Royds base hut.

However, a century of ice and snow isn’t the only thing standing in the way of the whiskey’s recovery. International law may also pose a barrier, as the hut at Cape Royds has been designated an Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) under Annex V to the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. Art. 8(4) of the Annex requires that “Listed Historic Sites and Monuments shall not be damaged, removed or destroyed.” Although temporary removal of objects for conservation purposes is permitted, and taking samples of the whiskey for study would be permitted, the crates and most the whiskey are prohibited from being removed completely by any one party under current treaty law. Today, preservation of the hut is the responsibility of the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust, hence their carrying out of the whiskey mission.

There are a couple sources of treaty requirements regarding Shackleton’s whiskey and other historical relics. Resolution 3 from ATCM XXXII incorporated the Guidelines on Preservation of Historic Areas, which states:

“To that end, Parties should notify the other Parties of the discovery, indicating what remains have been found, and where and when. The consequences of removing such remains should be duly considered. If items nonetheless were removed from Antarctica, they should be delivered to the appropriate authorities or public institutions in the home country of the discoverer, and remain available upon request for research purposes.”

Measure 5 of ATCM XXXII, “Revised Management Plan for ASPA 121 (Cape Royds),” is more specifially relevant to the McKinley whiskey, as it addresses the handling and conservation of artifacts from the Nimrod Expedition. The plan became effective in July, 2009. Section 7(vii) requires that:

“Material may be collected or removed from the Area only in accordance with a permit should be limited to the minimum necessary to meet scientific or management needs.”

“Any new artifacts observed should be notified to the appropriate national authority. Relocation or removal of artifacts for the purposes of preservation, protection or to re-establish historical accuracy is
allowable by permit.”

So while recovering a sample of whiskey with a syringe to take back for study would qualify as a “scientific need,” it or any other materials retrieved must remain in the hands of a public institution and be available to other nations for research purposes. Incidentally, I do not know exactly what “permits” are required or where they are obtained from, but I find it depressing to know that not even the remote icefields of Antarctica are free from the strictures of bureaucracy.

Finally, part of me suspects that the whiskey retrieval mission is less about getting a sample of historical whiskey and more about an awesome publicity campaign. Or possibly just part of an advertising war between whiskey makers — Jameson’s may dive into the sea during a storm to recover a barrel of their whiskey, but McKinlay’s can trump that by sending an expedition to Antarctica to retrieve Shackleton’s lost whiskey cache.