Distillery Focus

Change is afoot at Diageo’s Cardhu Distillery

Cardhu's new visitor experience is flying the flag for Speyside
By Gavin D. Smith
The Cardhu Distillery
The Cardhu Distillery
In many ways, Cardhu is a classic Speyside distillery with a classic Speyside pedigree, producing a classic Speyside style of single malt whisky. It is located at Knockando, deep in what was once prime illicit distilling country. The site has recently reopened to the public after a dramatic re-imagining of its visitor offering, in line with those of its fellow ‘Corners of Scotland’ distilleries: Glenkinchie, Clynelish, and Caol Ila, the latter still a work in progress.

In each case, the distillery in question is being celebrated in part for the role it plays in the Johnnie Walker family of blends, with Cardhu being promoted as the Speyside home of Johnnie Walker. Of the four ‘Corners,’ Cardhu unquestionably has the strongest ties to the Kilmarnock blenders, having been acquired by John Walker & Sons in 1893 – the first distillery to be owned by the company.

Prior to that, however, Cardhu had a notably colourful history, and as with many long-established Speyside distilleries, its origins lay on the wrong side of the law. John Cumming and his wife Helen took out a 19-year lease on the remote Cardow Farm in 1811 and were soon making whisky illicitly, with Helen in charge of distilling operations.

John Cumming received three convictions for illicit whisky making during 1816, and Helen would warn their illegally distilling neighbours when excise officers were in the area by hoisting a red flag on a pole at Cardow. Sometimes, the officers actually stayed at the farmhouse while working in the area. John Cumming was persuaded to operate on the right side of the law as a result of the ground-breaking Excise Act of 1823 and was granted a licence to make whisky the following year.

Following John’s death in 1846, his son, Lewis, and daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, ran the distillery. After Lewis’s death in 1872, Elizabeth adopted the role of principal distiller. She registered the ‘Car-Dow’ trademark, and the single malt was available in London by 1888.

Four years previously, Elizabeth had overseen the creation of an entirely new Cardow distillery adjacent to the now-antiquated original. The old equipment, including a somewhat worn pair of stills, was sold to a Johnny-come-lately former shoemaker who was establishing his own distillery across the valley – his name was William Grant, and the distillery was Glenfiddich.

The ‘new’ Cardow allowed production to increase from 25,000 gallons (113,000 litres) to 40,000 gallons (182,000 litres), according to distillery chronicler Alfred Barnard, who visited not long after the new distillery became operational. He wrote that the Cardow spirit was “…of the thickest and richest description, and admirably adapted for blending purposes. Our guide told us that a single gallon of it is sufficient to cover 10 gallons of plain spirit, and that it commands a very high price in the market.”
Settling in at the Cardhu tasting room

With blended Scotch whisky sales growing at a rapid pace, requiring larger quantities of malt spirit, it was hardly surprising that in 1893 John Walker & Sons, a long-standing customer of Cardow, acquired the distillery for £20,500. The Cummings family continued to operate the plant, receiving 100 Walker shares (worth £5,000) and a seat on the Walker board. In 1899, two new, larger stills were added, and the character of the whisky became lighter-bodied as a result.

John Walker & Sons subsequently became part of The Distillers Company Ltd in 1925. Cardow continued to provide a valuable source of malt for blending purposes, with an additional two stills added during a major rebuilding programme in 1960. Having operated as ‘Cardow’ for so long, the name was changed to the present Cardhu in 1981. The original visitor centre opened in 1988 to cater for the growth of public interest in the whisky and its distillery, with Cardhu subsequently becoming the ‘brand home’ of Johnnie Walker and the place where visiting VIPs from home and overseas were entertained.

Cardhu endured a somewhat torrid time during 2002–2004 when, due to excessive demand, DCL’s successor company, Diageo, converted the Cardhu brand from a single malt into a blended malt containing spirits from other Diageo distilleries. Labelled as Cardhu Pure Malt, such was the outcry at the use of the single malt distillery’s name and the widely misunderstood descriptor that, in 2004, the product was withdrawn from the market. It is also highly likely that the fracas prompted the changing of Scotch whisky labelling rules in 2009 to specifically prohibit the use of ‘pure malt’ as a descriptor. Today, Cardhu is Diageo’s third-to-best-selling single malt after The Singleton (which is really three single malts, Dufftown, Glendullan and Glen Ord, bottled separately under one brand name) and Talisker. The Singleton concept, in particular, demonstrates that the balancing act of matching supply and demand which the Cardhu Pure Malt was intended to counteract continues to this day.

In 2018, it was announced that Cardhu would become one of the ‘Four Corners of Scotland’ distilleries, which brings us back to today and the new visitor experience on offer. As with the other three ‘Corners,’ the re-imagining of Cardhu is the work of celebrated design and production agency BRC Imagination Arts, which brought the sort of fresh perspective only an outside eye can provide.

The principal Cardhu tour is named The Flavour Journey and is a step back from the more production-orientated tours of the past. Catriona Copland, heritage visits coordinator, explains, “It’s now a sensory experience – engaging with flavour and moving away from too many facts and figures.” Even the staff uniforms have been redesigned. “The red top is inspired by the red flag used by Helen Cumming to warn her neighbours of the presence of excise officers and the black trousers comes from the fact that Johnnie Walker Black Label has Cardhu at its heart,” says Copland.

During the tour, the histories of Cardhu Distillery and the Johnnie Walker brand are skilfully interwoven. Before the tour proper gets under way, two wall panels titled ‘Illicit Distilling’ and ‘Resilient Women’ set up themes that are developed during the subsequent film presentation. Appropriately, the narrator of the film which explores the heritage of Cardhu is female, and innovative technology ensures that the story remains engaging throughout. Interaction with a flavour wheel and bell jars containing scents then seeks to elicit a group consensus that Cardhu single malt majors in fresh fruits, cereal and fresh-cut grass notes.
Waving the flag for Cardhu and Johnnie Walker"s Striding Man

Armed with an understanding of how the distillery got to where it is today and the principal characteristics of its whisky, a visit to the production area is next on the itinerary. Close to the copper-domed mash tun is a ‘station’ where the guide explains the processes of mashing, fermentation and distillation – a walk-through of production processes follows. Copland points out that a distillery operative is always available to answer more technical or arcane questions posed by tour participants, explaining, for example, that the six stills are run slowly and hot to help create Cardhu’s signature green-grassy character, and going so far as to specify the operational range of temperatures.

Next, in warehouse seven, the tour guide talks through maturation, aided by a ‘props table’ featuring sections of oak from different cask types, while a range of casks may be nosed. They include Johnnie Walker blend components such as Caol Ila malt and Cameronbridge grain spirit, each of which help to reinforce the intimate relationship between Cardhu and Johnnie Walker.

“In time, there will be a version of the tour with sampling from a range of Speyside whisky casks in warehouse number seven, for an ‘elevated experience,’ ” Copland notes. “We also have the Guess Dhu Tour and Tasting Challenge, which includes a distillery tour, followed by a blue-glass nosing and tasting of five drams – some Cardhu and some Johnnie Walker. If you get five out of five right, your picture goes into the ‘Hall of Fame.’ ”

In an attractive new bar and lounge area, glasses of Cardhu 12 Years Old, a no age statement (NAS) distillery-exclusive bottling and a Johnnie Walker Black Label are served, along with a Johnnie Walker highball cocktail. There are also dram flights to purchase and a tasty platter menu from which to choose food to accompany the drams.

Finally, the spacious and attractively designed shop features a range of Cardhu branded gifts, Scottish craft and food items, and there is, of course, plenty of whisky. The key Johnie Walker component malts are all in evidence, of Cardhu. The offering includes Cardhu 12, 15 and 18 Years Old; NAS expressions Gold Reserve and Amber Rock; distillery-exclusive expressions and, finally, the splendid Four Corners of Scotland Collection 16 Years Old bottling – only available at the Four Corners distilleries and via malts.com. There is also a popular fill-your-own option, which currently features a first-fill ex-bourbon hogshead from 2011.
A piece of distilling heritage at Cardhu

Outside the newly refurbished Glenkinchie Distillery, the signature Johnnie Walker Striding Man statue wears a floral jacket and is placed at the distillery entrance. At Clynelish, he greets visitors in a textured, waxy, honey-coloured jacket to reflect that distillery’s prevailing spirit character. Meanwhile, at Cardhu he is dressed in a fetching multi-coloured jacket, top hat and riding boots, in which reds predominate.

At Glenkinchie and Clynelish the Striding Man stands alone, but at Cardhu he has a female companion – none other than a golden Helen Cumming. The statues are situated in a newly landscaped area on a brae just beyond the distillery, which offers panoramic views across Speyside and is probably the place where, in days of old, Helen would have raised her red flag of warning.

Photo credit: Diageo