Distillery Focus

Something in the water

Breathing in the sweet aromas of a dream
By Tash McGill
When exploring the rugged, sweeping landscapes of the South Island of New Zealand, it is nearly impossible to ignore the crags and tussocks that mirror those of the Scottish Highlands. The fields of grain that blanket Canterbury and Southland during long summer afternoons almost sing to the malting floor as they slowly give way to the rivers and tributaries of the alpine lakes. Here between Queenstown and Wānaka, over the breathtaking but treacherous Crown Range, lies the Cardrona Valley. It is both sparse and lush, full of light during the golden hour and empty but for the deep midnight blue of the sky and thousands of stars once the sun fades.

Whisky has a way of making time move both fast and slow; quick, precise moments of the distiller’s cut, mere hours of fermentation that pass so quickly against the stacking barrels, seasons, years and decades as spirit ages. So it is that Cardrona Distillery’s youngest spirit is barely five years old but seems so much older than that.

To meet Desiree Whitaker is to encounter a woman of such remarkable courage, skill and determination that her gracefulness and warmth is almost surprising, but it is not – much like the spirit that runs from her Forsyth stills and the unique atmosphere of family and commitment that fills the distillery walls. She is methodical, precise and inspired to make something of rich and significant quality.

Making whisky in New Zealand has never been easy, despite having the landscape, the water quality and the means to grow great barley. When Willowbank was mothballed and scattered to the corners of New Zealand and the Pacific in 1997, many believed that was the end of the New Zealand whisky dream. But there was something in the water about 20 years later, amongst enthusiasts and the dreamers, and the New Zealand whisky story has come back to life in the hands of people like Desiree Whitaker and her Cardrona Distillery team.

Her decision to build a distillery came at the end of the shortlist, immediately following perfume maker, after a successful first career in farming and the end of a marriage. “I had a list of ideas and I thought I wanted to make perfume, but the more I learned the more I was drawn into the distillation and alcohol components.” Alcohol is the best carrier of fragrance oils, as it easily evaporates on contact with warm skin allowing for even distribution. So as you breathe in the sweet aromatics of the barrel house at Cardrona, it’s easy to catch the dream that Desiree caught.

In 2011 and in keeping with her character, she embarked on an ambitious study of distillation and whisky while the farming practice was able to support her travel and study through Scotland and the United States. She learned from Dave Pickerell (Maker’s Mark) and cemented her desire to do things in the best possible way after realising many of the short-cut practices available when it comes to the production of spirits from bulk ethanol. Cardrona imports Laurette barley into New Zealand to meet its demand and has meticulously perfected its production methodology without cutting corners.

On this note of quality, excellence and perfection, Desiree is resolute and has been through the process of choosing a site, designing the distillery, purchasing stills and refining the techniques to produce Cardrona’s character spirit – as present in the new make as it is in the Just Hatched progress releases. She sold the farm and set about choosing the site in 2013, breaking ground and producing the first spirit in 2015, laying down the first cask on 5 November, 2015.

There is a rich and gentle sweetness to the spirit, not unlike a Speyside malt characteristic with absolute refinement and strength on the palate. Even at a young age, the spirit integrates elegantly with the character of the cask whether Breckenridge Bourbon barrels, New Zealand ex-Pinot Noir or PX and oloroso sherry casks from Gonzalez Byass.

Appropriately, all Cardrona releases have been at cask-strength so far, which gives an opportunity to really understand what’s happening in the cask but also an expression of the journey so far – which seems to be one of resolute determination.

There are no shortcuts to anything on the way to Cardrona. Pure alpine water runs under the valley, flowing from the nearby Mount Pisa, Mount Cardrona, the Crown Range and taking in the tributaries of the Clutha River and Lake Wānaka just to the north. To get water into the distillery, though, required the labour of Desiree’s father Alvin Reid, as well as husband Ash Whitaker. The bore hole, now affectionately known as Alvin’s Well, had to be dug 15 metres wide and seven metres deep. The quality of this water, the purity of the air and the remote atmosphere are in part what drew Desiree to the Cardrona Valley, where the Cardrona Distillery has become a family business despite the Reid family being teetotal as she was growing up. Shortly after meeting Ash, he sold up his business and joined forces with Desiree, Alvin and Judith Reid to form a business partnership.

That business partnership has seen the tests of Covid-19 and had to adapt ever so slightly without losing focus.

The production of single malt vodka and The Source gin has given the opportunity to build the brand in market, but there was always an intention to hold off a release of any whisky until it was at least 10 years old. It was after the input of some industry stalwarts that they reached the decision to release the Just Hatched series, which has only served to create further anticipation and excitement about what’s ahead. The initial release in 2018 sold out in three days, but since then has led to international awards such as World Whisky Awards Best New Zealand Whisky under 12 years in 2020.

During my first visit to Cardrona, a heavily pregnant Desiree shared how she came to enjoy single malt while working in The Ladbroke Arms in Notting Hill, where the owner’s collection of single malts drew her attention with their colours, flavours and aroma. In 2017 the barrel houses were relatively empty in comparison to the heaving and perfumed warehouse of private casks and ageing stock that now sits full to bursting on the 3.5 hectare site. Now a mother of two and with a large team working in the distillery, around New Zealand and the United Kingdom, she’s still the hands-on driving force of the business during day-to-day operations, before taking home a pile of cask samples to taste and complete progress notes on.

A slow and detailed tour through the distillery that day with master distiller Sarah Elsom and operations manager Kenny Vaugh was a methodical and exploratory tasting of how the various wine, sherry and Bourbon casks are influencing the spirit, talking about fermentation profiles and production schedules as the team scales back up to full production post Covid-19 restrictions. There’s barely a mention of the all-female distilling team, as it’s the passion and commitment of each member that overwhelms anything else but the precise attention to detail each team displays. Perhaps the most fun moment of the distillery tour is when standing in front of the spirit safe, tucked between Roaring Meg and Gentle Annie, the glowing copper Forsyth stills and in front of an enormous picture window looking out to the valley – Sarah points out that here in Cardrona, she can simply open the spirit safe.

Now, after the deep dark of the southern skies has fallen, it’s over a table of samples that we get to explore more of what’s happening inside the wood. Writing the progress notes for each of the private cask owners on a regular basis is one of the tasks Desiree enjoys, but admits it can be hard to get to and keep up with from time to time.

Slowly, sample after sample, it’s easy to see where this story is evolving. Much like the schist-covered buildings echo The Glenlivet and the stills are like a smaller Glenfarclas, there is much ode to tradition, time-tested practice and doing nothing by short-cut at Cardrona. This is reflected inside the casks and is exactly where the spirit is headed. The future will include ongoing small releases to encourage the enthusiasm and anticipation of the global whisky community as the bulk of the maturing spirit ages towards 10 years old. In some respects, while the timer is only halfway done, the story is so much further on now there is a warehouse full of whisky ageing. There is bravery and backbone in each glass; the distillery itself and those shining stills and a team that is unwavering in devotion.

I like to think it was backbone we were tasting in those private samples but perhaps Desiree said it best. She is a woman of well-chosen words and like everything she does, it’s so meticulous, you can’t help but believe her. “Oh, that’s good. It’s really good.”