Taste Review #63 – Cardhu Distillery Edition
The distillery at Cardhu is off the beaten track but still within the heart of Speyside. Located slightly to the north of Tamdhu and Knockando, it is quite easy to miss, but it is one of those distilleries with a great back story of illicit distilling.
Like many of the distilleries in the area, the distillery started as a farm based distillery named Cardow, tenancy of which was taken in 1811 by John Cumming and his wife Helen. The small hamelt beside it has changed from Cardow to Cardhu at some indeterminate point. It was Helen that was reportedly in charge of operations, making her the first female distillery ‘manager’. During the time of illicit operations, upon seeing the excise men approach, Helen would raise a red flag to warn of the presence of guagers, which made the farm an early warning station for the illegal stills up Glenlivet. The symbol of a woman waving a flag is now the emblem of the distillery and is proudly displayed on the bottle labels.
Not only did Helen set out alert others, she also had to ensure her own operation was disguised, hiding evidence of mashing by making flour and baking bread to explain the grinding down of cereal and the presence of yeast. And of course, the smell of bread would hide some of the smells. The guagers would be entertained at the Cummings homestead in an attempt to give other distillers time to hide their stills.
Given the problems of trying to hide their distillery, it is little wonder that Cardhu was one of the first Speyside distilleries to turn legit and obtain a licence after the 1823 Excise Act. By 1872, Helen’s daughter in law became the distillery manager and oversaw the rebuilding of the distillery in 1884. The old stills from Cardhu went to William Grant, who used them to build his Glenfiddich Distillery. By this time, Cardhu had built a great reputation and was in demand from blenders, athough it was availble as a single malt in London as early as 1888.
There was a change of management in 1893 when the distillery was sold to one of their long term customers – John Walker and Sons, but on the understanding that the Cummings would still run the distillery and have a seat on the Walker board. In 1899 the number of stills was doubled to 4, then in 1960 this was expanded to 6. Cardhu was now seen as the Highland base of Johnnie Walker, but in 1981 became the first attempt of single malt branding by DCL, the forerunner of Diageo. Incidently, there is another tie to the Cummings, as DCLs chairman from 1963-67 was Sir Rolnald Cumming – the great-grandson of John and Helen Cumming.
Cardhu was involved in some unfortunately negative publicity in the early 2000’s. Being in demand for both a single malt and blending in one of the world’s most popular whiskies put a great strain on supply. The solution arrived at by Diageo was toturn the Cardhu single malt brand into a ‘Pure Malt’ which is actually a vatted malt – a blend of whisky from multiple distilleries that had the same overall character as Cardhu. There was caused considerable confusion and controversy as it was not a single malt. For a brief period the distillery was renamed back to Cardow to differentiate between the single malt and the pure malt, but was changed back when the practice was discontinued. It had an effect on regulations however, and the term Pure Malt was banned and the term ‘Blended Malt’ created and continues in the Scotch Whisky Regulations in 2009.
The distillery is a very pleasant place to visit and is definitely worth a detour from the A95 if passing. I visited in October 2019 during my 4 days of whisky geekery. I was lucky, as by visiting early in the morning (10am!) and out of normal tourist season I managed to get a solo tour, guided by the lovely Jess who was a fountain of information. The distillery was silent when I visited, but this made no real difference to my visit, as I’ve been to one or two distilleries in the past, and in that 4 days I managed to visit 5 distilleries, one whisky bar and 2 whisky shops!
One of the interesting things that I picked up was the strange doll left on a shelf under one of the information boards. It turns out one of the operators believes the distillery is haunted and has left some items for the spirit to move around. See if you can see the doll somewhere in the distillery when you visit!
Now, supernatural spirits aren’t really my forte, so lets crack on to one more appropriate to this review – the disitllery exclusive dram.
Region – Speyside; Age – NAS; Strength – 48%; Colour – Old Gold
Malty nutty, creamy soft sweetness of stewing apples, light citrus, wood
sour citrus initially, then onto a much smoother palate with the sweetness and creaminess of a light dairy chocolate. Some malty notes with a very delicate spice.
short to medium. Spiced malt ending in a subtle dryness
I have to say that this didn’t set my world on fire, but was decent enough. My initial sour citrus experience was probably responsible for this, but I enjoyed the development into the sweet and creamy palate. And with a sweet tooth, I have to say that I liked the chocolately flavour too. This one has been matured in three types of casks including Californian Red Wine casks giving a lovely colour to the dram.
One of the problems with distillery only bottlings is that you don’t really know what you are getting when you buy and the small sample isn’t really adequate for telling how good a malt is. I bought a bottle anyway for around £80. To be brutally honest, I didn’t think this anything above any other Cardhu I’ve had in the past, and felt it was an insipid Diageo bottling that is just there to seperate the tourists and the foolish from their money. I suppose that I’ve been caught out. It might grow on me, but I think as this is a limited bottle, I might just stick it into storage and forget about it. Somebody who can’t visit the distillery or is a Cardhu fan may want to buy it off me at a later date.
Save your money and buy the standard Cardhu 12 year old at £35ish. Might only be 40% instead of 48% but is still a perfectly competent malt. If you want to treat yourself, why not try the Diageo Rare Malts 27 year old Cardhu from 1973. You’ll be breaking the bank to buy it at auction with prices being around the £200 mark or above, but if you see it in a whisky bar I can recommend it. I have tried it a long time ago and it made a positive impression on me about the distillery. I’m also lucky enough to have a bottle in storage. Maybe one day that is one bottle that might not be resold but drunk.
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All Photos – Authors Own