"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Friday, 8 June 2012

Cardhu (Cardow) Distillery, Knockando

Barnard’s journey to Cardow Distillery (as it was then known, and up until 1981) was in the afternoon and began with a quick stop at Dailuaine Distillery which he had visited before.  The order of his reports suggest that this was after visiting Cragganmore in the morning and he says that after the halt he had a long drive in the opposite direction which would match coming from the Ballindalloch area, though that makes it a very long day of travelling.

From Dailuaine he crossed the Spey at the Bridge of Carron and states that “Cardow is 4 1/2 miles from Carron, which is the nearest railway station”, a distance confirmed by today’s helpful AA route finder as being roughly the same when taking the road due north from Carron, round the Monahoudie Moss and then west to the distillery (4 miles that should take you 15 minutes apparently, or 30 minutes if you stop to take as many photos as I did!).  The initial stages of Barnard’s journey were through “birch plantations, which at times seemed to overhang the river”, those plantations now mostly fir trees with birch and other species in smaller patches.

Colourful view north from Carron Station
The journey (and sharp exercise apparently – perhaps they walked alongside the carriage some of the way) stoked up a mighty appetite amongst Barnard’s party “soon allayed by the well-known hospitality of Mrs. Cumming, the proprietress of the Distillery”.  This would be Mrs Elizabeth Cumming, the daughter in law of the original founder of a distillery at Cardow and one of the earliest women to run her own distillery.  She had taken over the running of the business in 1872 and remained in charge until 1893, overseeing the tripling of capacity by the construction of an enlarged distillery between 1884 and 1886.

The first Cardow Distillery was built at Cardow farm on the site of a previous illicit distillery where the founder John Cumming was occasionally caught and fined until he licensed it in 1824.  His wife Helen was a well known character in the industry and we will hear more about her later.  Barnard witnessed the old distillery buildings, describing them as “most straggling and primitive” but does not describe them further as he states that they will shortly be demolished.  The new distillery was built just a couple of hundred metres away and was “a handsome pile of buildings…built on the most approved plan, and with all the latest improvements and appliances”.  Barnard’s description hereafter was relatively brief and to the point for him.

Model of malting process

I arrived at Cardhu to take one of their tours and joined Andrew as he guided an international mix of fourteen fellow pilgrims round the establishment, some of which still dates to around Barnard’s time, other parts from a 1960s rebuild and expansion.  We began in a small visitor centre where a display area was set up to entertain us before the tour and where we were introduced to the malting process.  Barnard had viewed the single malt barn and the kiln which were of standard description; now there are two old barns and kilns but they have not been used as such since 1968 when malt barn no2 was converted into a warehouse.

Cardhu kilns and maltings
The original mill was powered by a large 18 feet diameter waterwheel, presumably powered by the Cardow Burn that feeds a small dam beside the site and a larger one further upstream.  The process water was and still is piped over two miles from a spring on Mannoch Hill, yet another distillery making use of this important watershed.  I’m going to have to take a proper count of the number of distilleries that rely on Mannoch for water in one form or another - it may be more than Ben Rinnes and perhaps more than any other hill in Scotland since the Campbeltown heydays when Beinn Ghuilean was the filter for the waters of Crosshill Loch.  The peat used at Cardow was also cut from moss land on Mannoch Hill but today the malt is almost unpeated.

The mash tun was originally quite small at just 12 feet wide by 5 feet deep and there were 6 washbacks holding 18,200 litres each.  The current tun is a much larger stainless steel full lauter vessel that produces 35,000 litres of worts per mash to fill into one of the ten washbacks, eight of Douglas fir and two of stainless steel.  Fermentation is a fairly regulation 72 hours.

Cardhu Distillery, main buildings built 1960
The stills were quite small at first, 9,100 litres for the wash still and 7,300 litres for the spirit, and the spirit was condensed in a cement worm tub that no longer exists.  There were two more stills added (together with a larger mash tun and new washbacks) in 1899 and a further two in 1960.  The wash stills now take a 17,375 litre charge and the spirit stills 14,780 litres.  The lyne arms on the wash stills are horizontal but they rise very slightly on the spirit stills to create a lighter, yet still oily spirit that is condensed in internally placed shell and tube condensers.

Cardhu Warehouses, built 1880s
The new distillery was capable of producing 273,000 litres p.a. but working to 182,000 litres at the time, compared to 114,000 litres p.a. at the old farm distillery.  The capacity of those six stills is now 3.2m litres placing Cardhu inside the top 50% in Scotland by volume.  Only bourbon casks are used for the 12yo single malt but some of the production is matured in sherry casks, all intended for blending.  There are around 7,500 casks in five dunnage warehouses around the site but most of the production is for blending and is stored in central bonds.  There is a dedication stone on the front of warehouse no.7 inscribed ‘E.C. 1884’ in recognition of the founding of the new site by Elizabeth Cumming.

After use of both Cardow and Cardhu as distillery names at different times in the past, the official name was fixed as Cardhu in 1981 and has remained as such ever since.  Cardhu is from the Gaelic for black rock although why this name was chosen for the location I don’t know.


Barnard’s reporting of Cardow doesn’t stop there though.  He returned to the distillery around seven or eight years later as part of his research for a chapter in a pamphlet he wrote for John Walker & Sons Ltd which also included reports on their Kilmarnock operations and Annandale Distillery that they took over soon after buying Cardow.

Cardow was sold to John Walker & Sons Ltd in September 1893 and Barnard mentions it was quite recent so his journey here is soon after.  He also mentions that Elizabeth Cumming had retired from the distillery but still retains the house and farm, and her son John had taken over as manager and was also appointed as a Director of John Walker & Sons.  Elizabeth died in May 1894 so this dates Barnard’s second visit to late 93/early 94.

He prefaces the Cardow section of the pamphlet with two unaccredited verses from an 18th century Scots song called The Banks of Spey which records the songwriter’s love for the beauties and glories of that great river.  More than half of his report is taken up with scene setting and introducing a little of the character of the main protagonists in the distillery’s history.  He also includes a few etchings of the operations which are very helpful.

His report begins by recording that Cardow, or Car-dhu (that spelling here recognised for the first time by him) was famous for its fine make of “water of life” for which he helpfully provides the phonetic “wishk-a-beh” to aid his London readers for when he later records the generic Gaelic name of Usquebaugh when referring to illicit production.  He then repeats his journey up from Carron station in a similarly evocative style to his earlier report and notes that Cardow has now become “quite a little township” with a “pleasant and busy appearance”.

He then introduces us to a page and a half of detail about the lives of three generations of the Cumming family who had founded and developed the business up to that point, although he does get most of the relevant dates and their ages wrong so perhaps he was recording from local oral tradition rather than documented evidence.  The original farm distillery was founded by John Cumming and his wife Helen (Barnard calls her Ellen), originally as an illicit operation but then licensed from 1824.

Site of original distillery at Cardow Farm, Cardow Burn in front
The illicit dealings and Helen’s involvement in keeping the gaugers at bay form a large part of his story.  The key elements I would share here are that Barnard at least tries to present a balanced view of these operations, reflecting both the legal and romantic aspects and the view of both the authorities and the smugglers without any judgement on his part.  He introduces Helen with note of her remarkable character and many resources, and tells a story of how she would welcome the gaugers as guests in her home while at the same time alerting other smugglers in the district as to their presence by raising a red flag once they were inside.

He suggests that John died in 1839 at the age of 64 and was succeeded in the business by his son Lewis who was already a partner and who for some years “was really the active spirit in the concern”.  John actually died in 1846 at age 72 and I think the year 1839 must have been when Lewis had begun taking over the running of the distillery.  Both John and Lewis are recorded as being intimate friends of the founders of Glenlivet and Glen Grant distilleries and often worked in co-operation with them.

Lewis had doubled the production of the distillery to around 25,000 gallons (114,000 litres) p.a. but he died in 1872 and was succeeded in the business by his widow Elizabeth. She oversaw the biggest change in the distillery’s history by building the new distillery in the 1880s as mentioned earlier.  She also sold the worn out stills from the old farm distillery for £120 in March 1886 to William Grant who was building Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown at the time.  Barnard is very praiseworthy of her abilities in both commerce and in the operation of a distillery, but described in that Victorian way that also reflects this as being the exception for a woman.  Her son John had been assisting her in recent years and that brings us up to the point of sale to John Walker & Sons and Barnard’s description of the current operations.

He here introduces me to an archaic word that I shall steal and use again – desideratum – which my Collins dictionary defines as something lacked and wanted but most other sources define it more positively as something wished for/desirable/essential; I think Barnard used the latter meaning here when discussing the availability of pure air and the open situation for malting that Cardow enjoyed.  There was still only one malting and kiln at that time but the second and larger pairing appear on a map surveyed in 1902 and plans suggest it was added after 1896 as part of expansion under the new owners, along with the two new stills in 1899.

Johnnie Walker rooms with malt barn no.2 and kiln behind 
The remaining operations are much as before, except for there then only being four washbacks, down from six recorded in his first report.  He mentions the worm tub again and here records its location as “just outside the walls of the still-house”.  One of the etchings shows the front elevation of the distillery and includes the word ‘Condenser’ in its caption, the concrete worm tank there seen on a raised section in front of the still house and beside the offices.  If a worm tank had continued to be used here then the already oily spirit may have been more like that noted by Barnard in his first report – “of the thickest and richest description, and admirably adapted for blending”.

Cardhu distillery offices and still house behind left
He records two large warehouses that had recently been erected and could store up to 1.3m litres, plus six others of lesser importance but which were “filled with whisky, some of which is of great age”.  He then enjoys a refreshment of a “nip of Cardow which had been maturing for fifteen years”, by far the oldest whisky I recall him mentioning in his book.  A 15yo limited release called The Managers Dram was bottled in 1989 for distillery gifts and the SMD Staff Association, available at premium prices if you can find any today.

John Walker & Sons was taken over by DCL in 1925 and thus ultimately part of Diageo since its formation in 1997.  Cardhu distillery is considered by the group as the spiritual home of Johnnie Walker whisky with some Cardhu appearing in every version of their famous blends and at the very heart of the Black Label.  Cardhu is also infamous for another episode in more recent history that I have to mention to complete the story, partly because Barnard was almost prophetic when he signed off his second visit with the words “there has never been sufficient made to overstock the market”!

Cardhu was a major catalyst for the current naming restrictions for Scotch whisky which were introduced by the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009.  Back in 2002, when stocks of Cardhu were so low that they were struggling to meet demand particularly for their main market in Spain, Cardhu 12yo Single Malt was withdrawn and a replacement Vatted Malt was launched under the description ‘Pure Malt’.  This was met with consternation by other industry players who complained about it in 2003 claiming that the use of the term, and the fact that the bottles and labels looked very similar to the single malt version and still called it Cardhu, would lead to confusion amongst consumers.  After discussions with the SWA the Pure Malt version was withdrawn in 2004 and the 12yo Single Malt was relaunched in 2005.  It is currently the biggest selling single malt in the Diageo range (MWYB 2011) and the 6th best seller in the world.

A lasting result of this episode is that the term Pure Malt is now a prohibited descriptor for Scotch.  Ironically, this was a term that Barnard used to describe the whisky from quite a number of single distilleries (as well as Campbeltown, Islay, Highland and even just ‘fine’ whisky on one occasion) but he doesn’t provide any such descriptor for Cardow in his first report!  The closest he comes is noting in his second report that Cardow had “made a mark for itself, independently of the Speyside and other Glenlivet makes” – his italics.  The current regulated descriptions for Scotch can be found in the 2009 Act available from the SWA – knowing what Barnard would have made of it all is perhaps a desideratum [thanks Alfred ;)], but sadly we will never know.