Cardhu: The Heart of Johnnie Walker

Pic courtesy of Diageo


If you aren’t a history buff, you might not realise the significance of a rather understated distillery formerly known as Cardow (pronounced car-doo).

The distillery was only renamed Cardhu in 1981, and by that time they were already known for Cardhu whisky for 16 years. In 1965, ‘Cardhu’ was registered as a trademark under which they sold their first Single Malt. The name, ‘Cardhu’, is derived from the Gaelic ‘Carn Dubh’, or black rock. And just as a bonus for those who love useless facts, the original name, ‘Cardow’ possibly originated from ‘Càthar Dubh’, which means black mossy land.

You must be wondering, what’s the deal with Cardhu, a distillery that many probably have not heard of before, or wondered about because the bottle of whisky sticks out among more common ones. Cardhu was in fact, the first distillery that Johnnie Walker bought in order to strategically secure its stock of whisky for its blends. That said a lot about Cardhu back then, and it is widely acknowledged to be the heart of Johnnie Walker.

Located in the heart of Speyside, a region that is home to 52 distilleries (heck of a lot for a single style!) of which 17 belong to Diageo. In the old days, nobody would come up to Speyside, but yet distilleries thrived, as it had everything a distillery would want (and why make the journey for the taxman pleasant); it was a great place to grow barley, and water was plentiful. At one point it even had one of the best rail structures in Europe at the time, and it helped the distilleries greatly in sending their whiskies down to the central belt of Scotland for blending.

Times have changed since then, and Cardhu may not be as strategically crucial as it was back then but Donald Colville, Global Malts Ambassador for Diageo and our guide for the day, explains that as far as Johnnie Walker is concerned, Cardhu remains the spiritual heart of Johnnie Walker and its significance in its history is not forgotten. Colville is no stranger to a good story, and he himself has an interesting tale to tell: his great-grandfather owned distilleries in Campbeltown and had plenty of dealings with the Walkers. The Walkers had once used the whiskies from Dalintober, the Colvilles’ then-main distillery, prominently in its blends.

We’re off to a good start then; you could say that people buy into Scotch whisky for its stories as much as how it tastes. We acknowledge that we all have a sentimental favourite, even if it is so far removed from what we would typically like. So it’s perfectly understandable that despite the fact there are many prominent distilleries in Diageo’s portfolio, Cardhu is the one distillery that we were ushered to see.

Grain distilleries, which use continuous stills, do not need to be restarted like traditional copper stills. It’s a process that’s not dissimilar to that used in petroleum refineries, and it is the same process that is used to make spirits like vodka (in general). As grain forms a substantial part of any blended whisky, large production volumes are necessary. To give a rough idea about the disparity in terms of production volume: the largest single malt distillery under Diageo is Glen Ord (The Singleton), which produces about 12-14 million litres of alcohol per year. Cameronbridge is their largest grain distillery, and it produces in excess of 145 million litres per year, which in fact, is more than the combined output of all 28 single malt distilleries at Diageo.

Cardhu is due for a facelift, albeit primarily to improve the visitor experience. The upgrade is part of a concerted effort to attract visitors, not that there was much wrong with it in the first place. Whisky tourism is a burgeoning bit of business – 1.7 million visited Scottish distilleries in 2016 – and it’s only natural for Diageo to capitalise. They announced earlier this year that it will be investing £150 million to transform its Scotch Whisky visitor experiences and Cardhu is one of four earmarked to link directly to the Johnnie Walker venue in Edinburgh.

Why Cardhu, you may ask, given its relative obscurity. The most popular distilleries may not necessarily be the best places to visit. As mentioned earlier, Cardhu is closely tied to Johnnie Walker, which is the best selling Scotch Whisky in the world. Most whisky drinkers will probably give blended Scotch a miss because the world of Single Malt is vast and numerous, while the liver, solo uno. That’s perfectly reasonable, as long as you don’t dismiss blends as bad stuff – that’s just the cheap stuff that you get high on as a wee teen. Blends, by nature, are multi-faceted. There’s a saying that if you want a bit of everything, get a blended Scotch, but if you want something unique and more focused, get a Single Malt.

Despite the fact that Single Malt Whisky is perhaps the only category of Scotch Whisky that seems to get significant, visible mileage in mainstream media and social media in recent years, the bread and butter of most distilleries, remains blended Scotch, and it does so by a long shot. As of two years ago, 93 per cent of malt whiskies produced is used for blends, though the number is probably closer to 91 per cent now. For a sense of perspective, typically more than half of a blended scotch is grain whisky.

The Original Jane Walker?

In Colville, we had the perfect guide to regale us with tales of the distillery as well as his various adventures as an ambassador – more on that later. When we arrived at Cardhu, we had the perfect setting; Heilan’ Coos greeted us as we drove into the distillery grounds. A faint whiff of malt and the welcome sight of a modest, unassuming distillery cajoled us to step in. You certainly don’t need to need to be a Scotch Whisky fan to enjoy an idyllic, picture perfect view of Cardhu.

As stories go, Cardhu has a fine one to tell. And While it’s hard to do much better than to be the first distillery secured by the Walker family, but in the age of fourth-wave feminism, Cardhu has a ready-made, feel-good story done and dusted without even trying. TL;DR, two women were key to Cardhu’s success and its enduring legacy.

John Cumming and his wife Helen Cumming started distilling illegally in Cardow, but it was Helen who would be the talk of the town, distilling and selling bottles through the window of their farmhouse. She gained legendary repute for her ability to evade alcohol taxation, and when she was caught, she was never charged.

What made it more amazing was that Cardow was practically on the ‘frontline’. It was the first port of call when the customs and excise men came down to the area. But what they didn’t count on, was meeting someone with her level of resourcefulness.

Customs and excisemen used to offer a reward of £5 for anyone who can offer information that would lead to the destruction or stopping of an illicit still. What the ingenious Scots would do, was to give information to the taxmen who would then find the worms and then break them, and give the informant his or her £5. Little did they know that the cost of the worm was, lo and behold, £5, and it turned out to be a cheeky way for the distillers to get the government to pay for a part that was expensive and had to be replaced fairly frequently.

For starters, Cardow had a distinctive smell – Helen had always been cooking and baking – so much so that it would mask the smell of the illegal distillation, or at least do just enough to throw them off the scent (sorry). When the unwitting taxmen came by, she would host the unwitting customs and excisemen with tea while she raised a red bedsheet to warn the other illicit distillers that the taxmen were in the area. As such, she earned their thanks as well as their respect, and undoubtedly kept the trade in the area alive.

However, even the best will slip up, and Helen would be apprehended on three occasions. It is at this point that we learn that there can be an upside to misogyny if you know how to exploit it, and all the more so when you are an illicit distiller. The authorities could not believe that a woman was capable of running a racket like this, and her husband, John, was charged instead. All. Three. Times. Unfortunately, there is no record of what he thought about taking the rap.

Wheeler and Dealer

Helen would not be the only Cumming who would have a hand in shaping the future of Cardhu. Elizabeth Cumming, her daughter-in-law, arguably went one better. She built a larger distillery on new premises and sold the old stills to a certain William Grant, who would use them for his new distillery, which he christened Glenfiddich. The expansion effectively tripled Cardhu’s output and made them key suppliers to Johnnie Walker.

Elizabeth, being the shrewd businesswoman that she was, saw an opportunity for a happy marriage and proposed to sell the business to the Walkers. They agreed on a fee of £20,500 in 1883 (about £2.42 million today). The genius of it was that the sum was evaluated to be double of what it was worth. In return, they continued to run the distillery’s day-to-day operations and for the pièce de résistance, she installed her son, John Fleetwood Cumming, on the Walkers’ board of directors for life. Her timing was pretty impeccable: she would pass away the following year and not long after in 1896, the Pattison Crisis hit hard, and her family did not have to bear the brunt of what proved to be one of the darkest times in the history of Scotch Whisky. If Donald Trump had pulled this off back then, he’d still be tweeting about it today. Unfortunately, there is a record of how this would feel like.

Modern distillery with a distinguished past

As distilleries go, Cardhu appears relatively modest. Like many distilleries today, the production process is streamlined. As we huddled in a corner of the visitor centre, he explained that Cardhu, too, has done away with floor maltings and currently, only six distilleries do malting in-house. We were, in fact, standing where they would have done this. Only a scale model remained, which was installed for guides to explain the traditional process. They do, however, still mill their own barley.

A guest at Cardhu once dropped his sunglasses into one of the mash tuns and thought that he had damaged the entire batch of spirit. But they just cleaned up the tun after they were done with the batch, picked up the sunglasses, and mailed it back to him. He replied that they now smelled lovely.

Cardhu uses only unpeated barley and mills them down to about 70 per cent grist, 20 per cent husk and 10 per cent flour. The flour, when mixed with water, congeals, so it’s necessary to ensure that there isn’t too much of it to create a mess. Colville explained that there are slight differences in the formula from one distillery to another at Diageo, owing to the specifications of the mash tun, but it is usually a variation of flour and grist (e.g. Mortlach uses about 68 per cent grist and 12 per cent flour). The mashing is done in a stainless steel mash tun that sports a copper lid and with a capacity of about eight tonnes. Cardhu uses a clear wort (which means no solids; the liquid isn’t clear), which gives you light, citric fresh flavours, as opposed to cloudy wort (favoured by Knockando, for example), which gives you malty, biscuity flavours.

The clear wort is then distributed among ten washbacks; four made from Scottish lark, four from Douglas fir and two from stainless steel. Fermentation of the wort at Cardhu takes about 75 hours – or rather, their practice is to let it stand for that period of time. Colville explains that fermentation typically takes about 40-45 hours, and some distilleries stop by then. The general rule of thumb is that 45-50 hours will give you nutty, malty flavours, and after 75 hours you get fruity, fresh, flavours of green apple and pears. If you go beyond 90 hours it becomes sharp; acidic – more like grapefruit.

Sourcing their water from the Lyne Burn in the Mannoch Hills, Cardhu distils its spirit slowly in six plain neck stills (three wash and three spirit stills) heated by steam. Currently, they produce in excess of three million litres of spirit a year.

The Expressions

Cardhu is not a name that you’d notice often on the shelves but it is available here in Singapore and as mentioned earlier, you can pick out one on your travels at DFS as well. Part of the reason why Cardhu is not as hyped in the UK is that only a small percentage of its production is sold as a Single Malt, and much of its production heads to Southern Europe where Spain, in particular, is a large market.

Speyside whiskies can be heavy; think Benromach, which is essentially a heavy, peated Speysider designed as a tribute to an older style, while Mortlach is not known as the Beast of Dufftown for no reason. But for the most part, Speyside whiskies remain the natural starting point for many budding whisky drinkers.

In terms of style, Cardhu is the quintessential Speyside malt to the wider world, and as such, it is highly approachable even for those who aren’t familiar with whisky. The baseline expression – the 12 Year Old, which is most readily accessible – is inherently sweet with notes of apples coupled with vanilla and honey.

Other expressions in the range worth trying include the 15 YO, the 18 YO, Gold Reserve and Amber Rock, which show more facets of this easy-drinking style. For the adventurous who are only looking towards the cutting edge, let us gently point out that the next time you pick up a glass of Cardhu, you’ll be reminded of its humble roots and how it was instrumental in the establishment of a true giant. In football terms, if I may, Cardhu was Johnnie Walker’s James Milner; at first you’re not sure what he does, but eventually you realise he makes everything else work.


Gallery


And one more story for the road…

As a global ambassador, Colville has seen many larger-than-life incidents in his time. In keeping with theme, I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing this little gem that he told us as a little teaser for an upcoming book of whisky stories that he may or may not publish. Go for it, good sir. If you like it, perhaps you can badger him on social media to do it sooner rather than later…

I arrived in Seoul for the first time ever in my life. Every airport is different and if they want to have a look in your bag or question you, some of the airports will take the bag off the conveyer belt behind the scenes and you have to go find them. Some will have them coming off with a huge security bag thing on it. In Seoul, it had a big yellow padlock on it.

So my first experience of the airport in Seoul was coming off and seeing my bag with a big yellow padlock on. The first time it went around the belt I thought, that’s not mine. Then it came back, I took it off and sure enough, two huge Korean security guards came over and took me over to this room. It was no bigger than the size of this floor area where we’re sitting. But with those four guys and one tiny wee guy who was clearly in charge, it felt the size of this area (indicating a small space with his hands) – it was tiny.

So my bag opens up. And this little guy, with his four big friends behind him, starts to look in the bag; looks at me; looks in the bag; looks at me, and then goes “HAAH!” I’m like, what does that mean? I looked in the bag, and lo and behold, looking up at me and shining like a crown on top of a pillow, was this square-cut – the traditional cut – piece of peat, wrapped in plastic wrap, like you’d wrap a sandwich in.

So he’s looking at this and I started going, “oh no no no no no, that’s peat. Peat.” I just could only repeat the word peat over and over again because I was thinking, he’s thinking that’s a big block of heroin or a big block of cannabis.

So I start absolutely panicking, and I just repeated the word peat over again.

He then takes this to be me admitting to carrying this for somebody called Peter. He’s asking, “are you carrying this for Peter? Is Peter here? Is Peter waiting for you? Do you know what Peter looks like?”

I’m like, ‘oh, no no no no no!’ I’m trying to explain that this is peat, thinking about scotch whisky.

“Johnnie Walker? Johnnie Walker whisky.”

“Ah yes, Johnnie Walker good.”

I’m like, ah yes! We’ve found mutual ground.

“Johnnie Walker, smokey taste.”

He goes, “ah, smokey taste.” I was like, “good”.

“We take peat. We burn peat. Smokey taste. This is peat.”

He’s holding it in his hand, and now he’s thinking this is some man’s ashes. Of someone called Peter.

So now I’ve gone from a drugs charge to carrying a body across international lines. So now I’m thinking how can I possibly explain this further? This is no word of a lie, I promise you this is all true.

At this point, he sends one of the guards away. The guard comes back with this young girl. She’s like 21 or 22. And she was this most angelic of light to me and becomes my absolute saviour, because not only did she did a year abroad learning English at university, she did it at Edinburgh. Throughout the year, she worked at the Scotch Whisky Experience Centre. So I explained (the situation) to her, she looked down and went, “oh ok, yeah.” “So explain to him, please.”

He was absolutely devastated and dismissed me.

However, the story does not end there. You know when it comes to duties – you’re travelling to different countries, you know that every country’s got different rules and regulations for how much you can carry. So, going to Korea – I think I’m right – you’re taxed not only on the volume of alcohol, but you’re also taxed on the value. So the higher the value of the product, you pay a bit more. So the thing is, you can carry in one bottle or a maximum of a litre.

I, of course, came back next time, six months later, carrying six bottles of incredibly expensive whisky for a big event.

So sure enough, my case comes off; big yellow padlock; here we go again, I think to myself. But this time, obviously my ‘crimes’ aren’t as heinous – they’re not as bad. So I get taken away to a side desk and my bag was put on a conveyer belt. I get sat down on this chair and there’s this person sitting there with his back turned to me, typing away. He turns around when the conveyer belt comes up. The case gets opened, the guy looks around and looks at me.

“NO, NO!”

He stands up and walks away. It was the same guy again. And I, to this day, do not know if he was saying, I’m not dealing with that Scottish idiot again, or, oh hell, I have to go find someone who speaks better English than me. Either way, this other girl came back – not the same girl – and I told her the whole story. She was in such fits of laughter.

She only charged me for one bottle of whisky.


This article is part of a series of distillery visits made possible by DFS Singapore. Many thanks for the hospitality!