As It Happens

Bottle of Scotch whisky from exploded 1941 shipwreck up for auction

George Currie no longer has any use for the 79-year-old bottle of whisky he retrieved from the wreckage of an exploded ship. 

The booze, while no longer drinkable, is expected to fetch upward of $20K

George Currie was a commercial diver in 1987 when he found the bottle of whisky at the site of the SS Politician shipwreck in Scotland. (Submitted by George Currie)

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George Currie no longer has any use for the 79-year-old bottle of whisky he retrieved from the wreckage of an exploded ship three decades ago. 

He can't drink it, because it's literally not fit for human consumption. He can't pass it onto his heirs, because he has just one bottle, but five grandchildren.

"I've had that for such a long time in the cupboard doing nothing, and everybody's heard this story," the 67-year-old from Orkney, Scotland, told As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong. "So it's not worth keeping."

The bottle — a relic from a 1941 shipwreck that inspired a novel and two movies — is now for sale at the Grand Whisky Auction, where it could fetch upwards of $20,000. 

264,000 bottles of whisky in the sea 

Currie grew up hearing the story of the SS Politician.

The cargo ship was carrying goods bound for Jamaica and New Orleans when it ran aground on a sandbar near the island of Eriskay, on Scotland's Outer Hebrides, on Feb. 5, 1941. 

Among its cargo were biscuits, cotton and, most notably, 264,000 bottles of Scotch whisky, ripe for the taking.

Currie says he no longer has any use for the whisky. (Submitted by George Currie)

Locals rushed to the wreckage to salvage as much of the whisky as they could. Wartime rationing meant booze was hard to come by, and folks figured the bottles were theirs by right. 

"People came from as far afield as Lewis and, according to reports at the time, few if any regarded what they were doing as stealing; the foundering of the ship made its cargo theirs to save under the 'rules of salvage,'" wrote Richard Woodward in Scotch Whisky Magazine

The authorities didn't agree. No duties had been paid on the booze, and the salvage operations were dubbed illegal.

"There followed a second, attempted, land-borne salvage operation, with the police raiding villages and crofts in an effort to recover the liquid cargo – and the locals secreting their ill-gotten gains wherever they could. Or else they just drank them," wrote Woodward. 

This cat-and-mouse game inspired Compton Mackenzie's 1947 novel Whisky Galore!, which was adapted into a 1949 film of the same name, then remade in 2016.

The novel Whisky Galore! was adapted into 2 movies of the same name. (General Film Distributors, Whisky Galore Film)

Despite the police crackdown at the time, much of the looted whisky was never retrieved. People either hid it, or drank it. 

"It's beating the system, isn't it?" Currie said. "Everybody would like to beat the system and get something for nothing."

Eventually, the authorities became so frustrated, they detonated the ship and let it sink, along with its precious liquid bounty.

A lucky dive

That's where Currie comes in.

Back in 1987, he was working as a commercial diver repairing subsea cables near the site of the SS Politician wreck. There was a local pilot on his team whose grandfather was around when the ship first crashed. 

"When we were in the pub the night before talking about it, he says, 'Oh, I'll show you where it is tomorrow,'" Currie said. 

Sure enough, the next day, the pilot pointed out the spot. 

"He said, 'The tide's running that way. If you jump in here, that should take you across the top of it,'" Currie said. "In we went. Less than 10 minutes — bang!"

Top row, left to right: lead diver Brian Foreman, George Grieve and supervisor Derek Pedington. Bottom row: George Currie and Allan Thompson. (Submitted by George Currie)

While exploring the wreckage, Currie says he noticed an area with "loads and loads broken glass lining the surface of the sand." Then his fellow diver spotted bottlenecks sticking out of the ocean floor.

"We came up with five bottles. So it was some excitement, I can tell you," Currie said. "It was like winning the lottery."

There were five people on the team, and they kept one bottle each. The boys were legends at the local pub that evening, Currie said.

"A brilliant night," he said. "When the pub closed, we alI went to the caravans and carried on all night."

A bottle of whisky from a 1941 shipwreck is on the auction block, along with a diving helmet and 2 bricks recovered from what remains of the SS Politician. (The Grand Whisky Auction)

The bottle is now up for auction, along with Currie's diving helmet and two bricks retrieved from the shipwreck. 

The auction says a bottle from the same shipwreck fetched £12,050 ($20,813.96 Cdn) in 2013.

"It is rare to recover a bottle from the wreck that has not been destroyed by the tides and the passage of time," Jane Manson, director of the Grand Whisky Auction, told USA Today. "It is a stunning piece of whisky history."

Bidding ends Sept. 4.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Sarah Cooper. 


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