Cardhu: The Quaint Charm of a Speyside Distillery

Around the year 1824, a lady named Helen Cumming used to run a distillery in Speyside near Archiestown, Moray, Scotland. She used to sell bottles of whisky to passers-by through the window of her farmhouse. The only malt distillery in the region pioneered by a woman, the distillery was founded by her husband and a whisky smuggler, John Cumming, in 1824. That was the humble beginnings of Cardhu Distillery, as we know of it today.

The Roots

Cardhu, the word, is derived from the Scots Gaelic Carn Dubh which means ‘Black Rock.’ Situated high up on Mannoch Hill, above River Spey, it operated initially as a seasonal farm distillery, post the gathering of harvest. With time, the cottage-business gradually transformed itself into a well-respected local distillery. There were two primary drivers - the Excise Act of 1842 and Helen Cumming. Helen, John’s wife, was a skilful distiller and a lady with remarkable business acumen.

Taking the Brazen Road

Interestingly, distilling on the then ‘Cardoo’ farm was underway from 1811, albeit without a licence. By 1816, John was convicted thrice for unauthorized distilling. Well, the secret was Helen – in actuality, she was the one distilling the malts. She was also the neighbourhood’s patrol for excise raids and would forewarn others by hoisting a red flag whenever excise officers were in the vicinity.

Post the relaxation of excise duty, John was one of the firsts to buy a license. Lewis Cumming, his son, had many friends in the whisky industry and taking their advice, the Cummings partnered with George Smith, founder of Glenlivet, to distribute Cardow’s whisky. In 1832, Lewis took charge of operations and Cardow became very popular locally. John passed away in 1846, entrusting Cardow Distillery to Lewis. With two employees, a brewer and a maltman, Lewis kept operations running from autumn to spring.

The Leading Ladies

In 1872, Lewis passed away. Helen and Elizabeth (Lewis’ wife) took charge of the distillery and it was under Elizabeth’s reign that the Cardhu kingdom flourished the most. She registered Car-Dhu as the trademark for the first time in the same year and the business flourished. In 1874, Helen passed away and Elizabeth began managing everything single-handedly.

A Market for Speyside Malts

A decade later, blenders offered a market for the malts from the ‘heartland of whisky production’ and Elizabeth realised that expansion was the only answer to the increase in demand. She bought four acres of land nearby and built New Cardow, a distillery where production tripled. By 1892, demand had outgrown supply once again.

The next year, Elizabeth sold Cardow to John Walker & Sons, and purchased 100 shares in Walker, an already prosperous business. The Cummings family fortune was sealed!

In 1894, Elizabeth passed away. Five years later, Cardow’s stills doubled to four. Also, a new road, partially funded by the Walkers, finally linked the distillery to Strathspey railway station, after a delay of almost 30 years. In between though, in 1898, the whisky market experienced a slump. Luckily for Cardow, the parent company acted as buffer and Cardow was able to withstand market anomalies.

The 1900s

In 1914, William Fraser took over as distillery manager and held his position till 1940. In between however, the World War dampened production to a considerable extent. The need to conserve barley was paramount and the distillery remained out of action till 1919. In the following year, Cardow was back with a new wash still and a spirit.  

Walker went public in 1923 and merged with The Distillers Company in 1925. Two years down the line, George Thomson, who had started as a clerk at Cardow, became the Production Director at Walker. Ronald Cumming, Elizabeth’s grandson, became the Export Director, Walker.

In 1960, Cardow was re-built and re-equipped. In 1961, Cardow made a comeback as a malt, ‘Cardow 100% Pure Pot Still Highland Malt Whisky.’ Notwithstanding marginal promotion, the product was re-launched as a single malt following the trademark registration of ‘Cardhu’ in 1965.

Early 1970s was characterised by oil crisis and recession. Consequently, sale of blended whiskies took a hit and for the first time, good malt whisky could be promoted in their own right.

It’s ‘Cardhu’, Finally!

In 1981, Cardow finally became ‘Cardhu!’ ‘Cardhu Pure Highland Malt Scotch Whisky’ was re-launched the next year in a new pack, and was made available across the globe. In 1988, Cardhu opened its gates to visitors and the Cardhu Visitor Centre came into existence. Almost two decades down the line, the Cardhu Special Cask reserve was launched.

The ‘Pure Malt’ Controversy

Diageo, Cardhu’s parent company, decided to stop production of Cardhu single malt in December of 2013. The idea was to replace it with blended malt while retaining the bottle design and label of single malt. That caused some stir in the market as both customers and whisky producers were quite unhappy. To resolve issues, Diageo agreed to change the label style and colour of their pure malt to help avert confusion. However, this fiasco affected sales substantially.

The Cardhu Distillery is presently operated by Diageo. Cardhu’s Scotch whisky is popular than ever before and it also makes for an essential component of the popular Johnnie Walker blended whiskies. A family of delicate single malts, Cardhu offers the perfect balance of fruity, spicy and floral flavours. Cardhu malts have warmth and a taste that is clean and silky. On a lazy afternoon, all one needs is Cardhu and the company of friends.