Pouring the dram

We are back in the Speyside. Cardhu distillery is named after the little village of Cardow (‘Black Rock’ in ancient Gaelic) and is situated quite remotely on the left bank of the river Spey near from Knockando and Caron. Very remote indeed, smells like illegal back in the days… Spot on! John Cumming was officially granted a distilling licence in 1824 (thanks to the Excise Act of 1823, the duty was cut down, it then became more affordable for farmers to become distillers) but it was his wife the real master: indeed, Helen was operating under the radar since 1811 when they leased a farm. She’s been caught at least three times but never gave up! Cardhu logo is supposed to be Helen Cumming waving a red flag: when they had a visit of excise officers she was waving a flag in order to warn the neighbours. She was said to be the first woman distiller and was well recognised in her talent to avoid tax. And Cardhu was a woman affairs at the start as eventually, Elizabeth Cumming, her daughter in law, managed the business… But Helen was still in the background until her 90’s!

It has not been an easy road for Cardhu as it was small, far from the Strathspey Railway, roads were difficult,… Distribution was a challenge. John’s son Lewis, who took over the business from his dad, had many friends in the business and George Smith of Glenlivet helped them at the start. When Lewis died, as mentioned, his wife took over, under the supervision of the matron and in 1872 the trademark Car-Dhu was registered.

Cardhu made itself a name and at the end of the 19th Century it could not produce enough for blenders and Cardhu had to extend and treble the capacity. Elizabeth’s son took over and demand was so strong that the new Cardhu capacity became full one again. And at this time they sold the distillery to John Walker & Sons in 1893. The family made a fortune but it is probably why the distillery survived to the subsequent crash, thanks to a new owner with stronger financial capacity and network.

At some point, it was the first oil fired stills but coal came back: even though the experiment was conclusive, the cost of coal was cheaper. It’s now gas fired. The new owner doubled the number of stills to 4 (in 1899), then to 6 in 1920 (basically when the production restarted after the requisition of barley for the war), then the distillery was rebuilt in the 1960’s and Cardhu, even though staying a strong component of the blending activities of John Walker, was sold again as a Single Malt.

Still today, according to Molly the tour guide, every bottle of Johnny Walker (John Walker & Sons merged with DCL – Distillers Company Limited, who later became Diageo after successive takeover and mergers) contains a bit of Cardhu. Indeed, the Johnny Walker vibe is strong at Cardhu: on arrival, one can wonder if it’s Cardhu of Johnny Walker distillery! Cardhu is often branded as the ‘Home of Johnnie Walker’, 70% of the production is going to Johnnie Walker.

There was a controversy recently (well now 15 years ago). Diageo said they could not meet the demand of Cardhu Single Malt (in Spain they are traditionally big drinkers of Cardhu), they then tried to use Cardhu as a trademark and making it in fact a Blended Malt (or Vatted Malt) or a Single Malt not necessarily distilled in Cardhu: same label, same bottle, same brand, with ‘Pure Malt’ statement. It led the Scotch Whisky Association to tighten the rules on Single Malt. It led Diageo to basically create the concept of The Singleton.

But back to the visit. As mentioned, Cardhu is owned by Diageo. It means two things: pictures will be very limited and I’ll have another stamp on the Passport! That being said, we ran a tasting class recently and we took American tourists in Glenkinchie. Good surprise, the picture policy was relaxed (the Glenkinchie report will be updated accordingly at a later date)! But not at Cardhu, no picture inside basically.

The visitor centre entrance is next to the malt intake, the former malting floor, with the traditional cute pagoda roof (it was the chimney basically, and this shape is the best to avoid rain to fall in the kiln).

The tour starts by the explanation of the malt process and a trivia about whisky flavours. The room is very nicely set-up and the visit interactive as some blind nosing of flavour is organised… Very difficult to get it right! The malting is well explained and the cutaway scale model of a traditional malting floor helps the understanding. This stage is always a very theoretical speech as no malting actually happens at the distillery (notable exception in the Speyside is Balvenie) and by seeing how it would be done always helps. Glenkinchie also have a scale model, of the full grain to barrel process, but this stage of the visit was self-contained.

The setup is really nice, some barley, malt and grist in the typical Cardhu bottle, and the Porteus sieve box to split the husk, grist and flour. Interesting to open it as there’s a little drawing of the inside of the Porteus mill. Again a Porteus mill indeed, it’s not the first time we see one of them, it’s a very common mill: very efficient and high quality. It was so good that, basically, you buy one and off you go forever. It led the Porteus company to bankruptcy as they would only sell one unit that last forever to a distillery!

The actual visit starts in the mash room, there is a single mash tun in Cardhu, a stainless steel vessel: 8T of malt, 26,000L of water in a 6 hours process. The malt was said to be produced in house by Diageo. However, huge distilling capacity of Diageo probably generates bigger malt requirement than the malting capacity. One odd thing is that there was no mention of the three waters, giving the impression of a single water with gradual heating. It would need the tun to be basically a kettle… Another visit might be necessary to clear things up! Putting tour guides on the spot is not the purpose of the Single Malt Tour, and Molly was a great and engaging guide for sure.

The mash is heading towards 8 washbacks, 2 in stainless steel, 6 in more traditional wood. A distillery operator was on duty and having a taste of different wash at different stage of the fermentation was great: unfermented it is surprisingly sweet, eating malt is not giving a such impression of sweetness. While the fermented mash, it taste like a strong bitter yeasty warm beer, not really the enjoyable kind to be fair! And it’s probably against Health and Safety rules do shush… It’s will left to ferment for 70 to 80 hours before making its way to the still room.

There are three pairs of stills in Cardhu, 36,000L for the wash stills, 31,500L for the spirit stills. The spirit safe is operated manually. The control room seems to be somewhere else, so there’s a camera on the safe, most probably to operate the safe manually but remotely and see the hydrometers and thermometers on a screen in the control room. Quite clever automation! Indeed, as a reminder, the alcohol content will be determined by the Original Gravity (the gravity of the mash) and the gravity of the spirit, and it needs to be temperature corrected as the gravity of a similar fluid will vary with the temperature.

In an old traditional dunnage warehouse, the historical speech mentioned in introduction took place. There is obviously not enough room onsite to mature the full stock of Cardhu and casks are probably sent somewhere else… But in Scotland! It has to be distilled, matured, and bottled in Scotland in order to be officially Scotch Whisky!

The highlight of the visit (it is the 11th stage of the Single Malt Tour, we are becoming more and more exigent!) is definitely the tasting should one decide not to go for the basic tour (a mere £6) but the Cardhu Collection Tour: if it’s a bit more money, £20, the value is exceptional, 7 whisky to try… Definitely not for the drivers! But it is very well organised and samples can be placed in tube and taken away.

Cardhu 12 years old: it cannot lie, it’s a Speyside with a strong ex-bourbon influence. Peach, pear, honey, vanilla, oak. Quite short finish to be fair, but a light, sweet and enjoyable spirit. No wonder why they like it in Spain, it probably suits well hotter climates. It would probably deserve a bit more than 40% ABV.

Cardhu Amber Rock: also very typical from Speyside this 40% NAS. One would probably bet on a younger spirit, it feels a beet greener, slightly less sweet, probably more refills also, although it’s finished in first fill ex-bourbon casks, giving the vanilla, oak and toffee kick. It’s obviously very subjective, but side by side with the 12 years old, the choice would not be really obvious, especially considering this NAS is more expensive by more or less £10.

Cardhu Gold Reserve: also a NAS, it’s basically in-between the two previous drams in term of prices. However, this is much more powerful despite also being 40% ABV. Richer, a fuller body. Probably a bit older than the previous one with probably some amount sherry cask in the mix. It is by the way challenging the official positioning on the flavour chart compared to Amber Rock, but the fact it is offered for tasting in that order is also contradictory! It’s the magic of tasting, 5 palates will have 5 different opinions! So don’t take my word for it!

Cardu 15 years old: this one is the straight evolution of the 12 years old, they are definitely brother and sister, it’s the 12 years old but much darker, slightly richer and more complex with a longer finish (still 40% ABV). Probably a bit of lack of risk and originality here, the line feels kind of straight between the 12 and the 15 years old, feels slightly redundant. In other words, if there’s only the 15 years old on the shelf, let’s buy it, if there’s the 12 and the 15 years old side by side, choice should probably remain on the 12 years old.

Cardhu 18 years old: it better be good with a £25 price jump to £75. Red berries, caramel, cooked apple and pears, rich, sweet, fully bodied with a long and complex finish but still a smooth drink. The improvement from 15 to 18 years old seems much greater than the improvement form 12 to 15 years old. Slightly more powerful (still 40% ABV though) it is probably more enjoyable as a night cap rather than an aperitif.

Cardhu Special Cask Reserve – Batch 13.15: whatever it means… It’s selected from “very old oak casks”. Is the cask itself old? Was the oak very old when felled? Is the spirit old? A bit blurry and evasive… And difficult to get a definitive official answer about this NAS! It however seems the casks were maturing an older vintage of Cardhu and the cask was rejuvenated. This is for sure a more rich and powerful version of Cardhu (still 40% ABV) which is famously known for being smooth. Stronger Cardhu without losing the identity of the brand. This is a well constructed whisky, candied and dried fruits, cinnamon, raisins, vanilla, cooked pears and apple. Long and sweet finish.

Cardhu Distillery Only Edition: 1,800 bottles only but it’s been around for an awful long time, one can wonder how many are sold on a daily basis… It’s a £80 NAS in a clear bottle, the colour is very light, would consumer think it’s too young just based on the colour? For sure, it’s probably young with a lot of ex-bourbon refills. This is the only one of the range with a stronger ABV, 48%, probably deserve a bit of water. Honey, apple, pear, grain, toffee,… Powerful and well constructed, quite strong, a bit of sherry influence could have been interesting on top…

An advice to visitors, even if not driving, enjoy the drams at home more relaxed and not pressurized by the time as 7 is quite a lot! This is why Cardhu is a great distillery to visit: firstly the staff is really nice, the distillery has a nice history and is linked to an iconic brand (Johnnie Walker is by far the most sold Blended Scotch Whisky in the world with 17.4 million cases) and on the visit, the experience is all about Cardhu. If the shop is clearly a Diageo shop, the experience is Cardhu, the tasting is all about Cardhu and the whole range. It would have been very tempting to make a Johnnie Walker and Diageo experience (like Aberfildy, on the agenda next, it the House of Dewars) but Cardhu on its own was chosen and the other brands are in the background without shadowing the identity of Cardhu. Therefore it is a very good distillery to visit and a nap is well deserved after tasting at home the 7 drams!

Further reading:

Diageo’s Malts.com – The History Of Cardhu: https://www.malts.com/en-row/single-malt-whisky-history/cardhu/

Malt Madness – Cardhu Distillery Profile: https://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/cardhu.html

Undiscovered Scotland – Cardhu Distillery: https://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/knockando/cardhu/index.html

Whisky.com – Cardhu: https://www.whisky.com/whisky-database/distilleries/details/cardhu.html

Wikipedia – Cardhu Distillery: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardhu_distillery

Women in Whiskey: Helen and Elizabeth Cumming of Cardhu: https://thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/scotch-whiskey/women-scotch-whisky-helen-cummings/

Speyside’s Cardhu – The extraordinary story of the women behind the whisky: https://www.alcoholprofessor.com/blog/2014/04/08/speysides-cardhu-the-extraordinary-story-of-the-women-behind-the-whisky/

Distillers Company Limited: https://scotchwhisky.com/whiskypedia/5893/distillers-company-limited/

The 10 best selling Scotch whisky brands – updated for 2017: https://foodanddrink.scotsman.com/drink/the-10-best-selling-scotch-whisky-brands/

Whisky’s reputation ‘under threat’: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/3250754.stm

Whisky industry settles on strict malt definitions: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2003/dec/04/food.foodanddrink

Whisky battle ends as Cardhu brand agrees to makeover: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/whisky-battle-ends-as-cardhu-brand-agrees-to-makeover-81227.html

‘Pure’ cheek of whisky brand: https://www.scotsman.com/news/pure-cheek-of-whisky-brand-1-1296692

The unbreakable malt mill that was simply too successful: https://whiskystories.com/2017/01/23/the-unbreakable-malt-mill-that-was-simply-too-successful/

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