Distillery Focus

A gem in the eye of a storm (Cardhu)

Say the word ‘Cardhu' and it stirs up images of underhand dealings. But the distillery intrinsically linked to last year's scandal is charming and impressive, and its staff outstanding. Ian Buxton reports
By Ian Buxton
Cardhu may have been around for the best part of 200 years, but it’s a fair bet that more has been written and broadcast about this Speyside distillery in the past 12 months than in all of the rest of its
distinguished history. Not that this blizzard of opinion, rumour, spin, gossip, innuendo and invective necessarily added very much to the sum of human knowledge but it certainly left its mark.I refer, of course, to the great debate surrounding Cardhu’s moves from a single to a ‘pure’ or vatted malt, and the restoration of the distillery’s original name, Cardow – both now being reversed. As the dust begins to settle on a divisive and painful episode in the history of Scotch whisky, I journeyed to the source of the controversy to find out more.And, it seems, I took the road less travelled. Despite all the publicity and a welcoming visitor centre only around 8,000 of us actually make it to Cardhu itself. But there you’ll find as interesting and
impressive a distillery as any and a group of folk passionately committed to the traditions and quality of the product they make.I spent time in the company of Andy Cant, Cardhu’s new group manager (he also looks after Knockando and Cragganmore); visitor manager Helen Gardiner and Ian Williams, who oversees the superb Johnnie Walker Brand Home.The connection with the Johnnie Walker brand is a long-standing one. Under its original owners, the Cummings, Cardhu’s whisky was eagerly sought after for blending. One such customer, and a large and regular one, was The Distillers Company who in the late 19th century needed guaranteed supplies for its Haig blends.DCLtried to buy the distillery in 1886, but were rebuffed by the redoubtable Elizabeth Cumming. However, by September 1893 the position had changed, and DCL’s competitors John Walker & Sons of Kilmarnock acquired Cardhu for £20,500 plus the value of the stocks. So, with this long historical connection with blending, perhaps we should not have been so surprised by the proposal to introduce a vatted Cardhu.Walkers, who up until then were solely a blending concern, were delighted with their new purchase, boasting in the trade press that it “would give the firm thorough command of their manufacture from the first inception, and thus afford the utmost facility and certainty in ascertaining the precise nature and quality of the principal components of their blend.”One up on the DCL, then, though Walkers survived as an independent concern only to 1925 when, like so many others, it joined the fold – which today we know as Diageo. By 1930, operational responsibility had passed to DCL’s subsidiary Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd and life went quietly on in the valley of the River Spey.The names Cardhu and Cardow seem to have been interchangeable for a long period, but the confusion was resolved in 1981 when the former spelling was adopted as the distillery’s name and the mark for its single malt. This was somewhat academic for most of this time, as the need to preserve stocks for Johnnie Walker Red and Black Label was paramount and little or no Cardhu was seen.However, from 1982, promotional support was extended to Cardhu and its steady sales growth, especially in Spain, began. Today, this remains the key market for the single malt, accounting for the
overwhelming majority of sales. Rapid growth lay behind the move to vatting and Cardhu has found favour with the Spanish consumer.The distillery itself is in the heart of Speyside, lying on a spur from the B9102 road which, for much of its length, runs alongside the Spey. Distilling began here in 1811, and went legal in 1824. Founded by one John Cumming the distillery soon established an enviable reputation and sales grew rapidly, especially in the boom years of the late 19th century.Alfred Barnard visited Cardhu, which he described as this “old established and famous distillery” and noted that the whisky was “of the thickest and richest description and admirably adapted for
blending purposes”.In 1884 the distillery was completely rebuilt just a few hundred yards from the original site. A new plant was installed but the old was not scrapped: William Grant of Dufftown purchasing stills and other equipment for his new distillery under construction at Glenfiddich.Enlarged in 1960 and again in the late 1980s, today Cardhu consists of three pairs of stills giving a total capacity of around two million litres of alcohol per annum.As has been the case since the earliest distilling here, water is drawn from the Mannoch Spring on the hills behind the distillery (Mannochmore, another Diageo distillery on the far side of the hill, also takes its water from a nearby source on the same hills.)Malt is sourced principally from Roseisle maltings, and very lightly peated. A Porteus mill (though not the one visitors see) serves one seven ton mash tun and eight larch washbacks. Throughout the distillery, everything is meticulously wellordered and in immaculate condition.It’s also busy, with Cardhu in virtually year-round operation. Two short seasonal shut downs permit vital maintenance and a well-earned Christmas break but, this apart, Cardhu is handling 15 mashes per week and running at close to full capacity.Naturally, then, the still house was hot and heady on my visit, but it is also light and open in design and easy to work.Cardhu’s stills are tall, with relatively wide shoulders. Straight lyne arms run from the wash stills, with a slight angle on the lyne arm from the spirit stills. A light, floral, green character is sought in the new made spirit which Andy Cant attributes partially to the very bright wash, the 60 hours plus fermentation and the amount of copper contact in the distilling process.Once collected, the new made spirit leaves the distillery by tanker for filling off site, though casks selected for maturation as single malt return to Cardhu’s warehouses, predominantly of the dunnage style. Around 7,000 casks are stored on site.Having achieved the desirable green grassy character in the new make, bourbon refill casks are generally used for maturation and certainly 100 per cent of the make reserved for single malt is stored in ex-bourbon wood.However, as in the past, the majority of Cardhu’s output is required for blending. This is celebrated in the presence at the distillery of the stylish and elegant Johnnie Walker Brand Home. Converted from the former maltings, this trade-only facility contains a library and office, both with historic Walker family pieces and brand memorabilia; a nosing and tasting classroom and a dramatic dining room.Throughout, the premium quality of the brand shines through. It’s reflected in the fittings, the carefully selected art collection that graces the walls, the fine Persian carpets and the simple elegance of the custom made oak furniture. It’s a fitting tribute to the Walker family and the world leading status of the Johnnie Walker brand.Not that visitors to the public areas are short changed. A tour of the distillery is available for £4 (as usual at Diageo’s distilleries, this is then available as a discount in the shop), and this includes a
complimentary dram. Tours are very personalised. With limited numbers, the guides have time to spend with their visitors and carefully answer all the inevitable questions, whether from
knowledgeable enthusiasts or firsttime visitors.Display material on the nose of whisky in general, and Cardhu in particular, is well handled, with excellent pictorial graphics introducing the concept of the flavour wheel exceptionally clearly. The nosing and tasting that concludes the tour is made all the more educational by these helpful aids.The tour finishes in the shop, of course, but it should not be missed for there you may find a very good selection of Diageo’s expressions including the Flora & Fauna, Hidden Malts and Rare Malts ranges. I noticed a bottle of the Friar John Cor 1494 commemorative bottling which, being hard to find, will be of particular interest to collectors. Centre manager Helen Gardiner confirmed that an enthusiastic band of collectors are regular shoppers at Cardhu.The shop is clearing its stocks of Cardhu Pure Malt in anticipation of the return of Cardhu Single Malt. With the controversy now dying away and the distillery’s identity once more confirmed as Cardhu, what of the future?Within a very short period, Cardhu will return as a 12 year old single malt, with its packaging gently renewed and its name reinstated. Spain will again be the main market. Internationally, Johnnie Walker Green Label has taken up the baton as a vatted or, as it will soon confusingly be known, a ‘blended malt’ and has received an encouraging welcome.Previously, Cardhu was noted for its light nose, suggestive of apples; medium body with hints of peat smoke and long vanilla finish. Will there be surprises to come in the new release?Somehow, I doubt it. After all, why trifle with success? There have been enough dramas for a while and it’s time to pause. Just drink and enjoy this venerable dram, for so long sought after by blenders. After all, that’s what it’s all about. Isn’t it?