Dust down that old office globe that once was a centrepiece and give it a good forceful spin. Countries, oceans and continents flash past in an instant. Towns, cities and villages that you’ll never visit and lands you’ll never set foot upon, appear and disappear. Keep on spinning. Arguably, the furthest point is New Zealand.
A country I’ll never visit. A fine rugby team that I’ve seen play in the flesh and dominate anything put before it. But a landscape I can experience through aroma and taste, thanks to a mere whisky. I’ve visited New Zealand previously, with the incredibly divisive Boutique-y Willowbank 17-year-old. A whisky that I’ll be opening for an Edinburgh tasting at the end of April, all current things going well. [Thanks to COVID-19 this was postponed.]
A whisky that wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I thoroughly enjoyed the ride and the sense of the outer limits it delivered in liquid form. Given the scarcity of whisky from New Zealand and particularly back home in Scotland, it’s a trip I’ve not taken since.
While Willowbank is sadly no more; a whisky before its time. The current whisky boom has scattered seeds across the world, giving birth to new distilleries and peppering the globe with new destinations and experiences.
Hence why we’re visiting Cardrona for the first time and in Malt tradition, this means a few words on the distillery for your convenience. Or at least that was my initial plan, but as I started to read about the history of the distillery and in particular, founder and distiller, Desiree Whitaker, I felt there was a more interesting article within grasp. So, I reached out to Desiree, via brand ambassador Joseph, and she kindly agreed to answer some questions, which is appreciated, given this was all during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Malt: You have had quite a journey to reach this point of owning and running a distillery. For a tea-total farmer’s daughter on the other side of the world, it seems like an amazing tale. From discovering whisky in London, by good fortune and then heading over the border. What compelled you to explore and discover this notable spirit from a distant land?
Desiree: I first met Whisky as a 21 year-old bar manager at the Ladbroke Arms in Notting Hill. The then owner, Ian Mackenzie, had a wonderful collection of malts which he displayed on the back bar. It was the shapes and colours that first attracted me, and the flavours that hooked me.
I lived the UK for two years when I was aged 20 & 21. From there I returned home, finished my degree and then started a farming business.
Malt: You then immersed yourself in the art of creating whisky. Visiting Scotland and America, learning, shadowing and no doubt trying a few examples. Were you surprised by the level of detail and options that characterise the realm of whisky?
Desiree: Ten years later, I had had a successful farming career, and involved in industry governance, and had travelled extensively through most of the world. But then the worst happened. My marriage broke down. After discussion, he decided to leave and I was left running the farm, with the assistance of a talented and dedicated team. It was a really difficult time, and caused me to do some major soul searching. Farming was a strong business but was not necessarily the path that set my soul on fire.
In early 2011, I started making lists of ideas of what I wanted to do with my life. Hundreds of ideas. Short listed them, researched each one, scrapped the lot – started over again. Whisky made a list, and that seed of an idea planted all the way back during my time the UK started to germinate. The more I researched, the deeper its roots grew.
I devoured all the information I could find and travelled to courses and distilleries to grow my knowledge. I visited well in excess of 50 distilleries, both small and large, throughout Scotland and the United States, taking every visit I could get, and many distilleries I repeated many times. I was hungry for the details and nuance. I was lucky enough to meet the late great Dave Pickerell early in my journey, and Dave was a wonderful mentor along the way. My research odyssey took the best part of 2 ½ years. In May 2013 I drew a line in the sand, and decided to turn my dream into reality. I sold my farm, and moved to Wanaka to find the distillery site at Cardrona.
Malt: By pursuing knowledge and experience at this stage, was this still more of a passion and interest rather than a new business venture and career?
Desiree:My travels and research were entirely focused upon learning how to make great Whisky, so as to build the Cardrona Distillery. It may sound romantic to travel the world learning about the art of distillation, and in many ways it was. But, it was all solo, and as a rule, lonely.
Malt: At what point did you decide you wanted to have your own distillery?
Desiree: 2011. The more I travelled and learned about distilling and Whisky making the more my dream gained colour and intensity. By May 2013 I knew exactly how it would look, how the distillery would be laid out – loosely a Woodford Reserve floorplan, Forsyth Stills, stone walls, Glenlivet-esque windows into the still house
Malt: There are so many factors to consider when looking for a distillery site. In Scotland, many have historical roots in avoiding the excise man and were predetermined. In Japan, Shinjiro Torrii and others sought the best place to create whisky. What factors were you looking for and how long did the search take?
Desiree: My mission at Cardrona is to make great Whisky. Cardrona has an abundance of mountain water, and a wonderful alpine environment to mature great Whisky.
Malt: Can you tell us a little about the Cardrona landscape and why it suited your needs?
Desiree: The distillery is sited in the Cardrona Valley between Queenstown and Wanaka. The valley is flanked by two ancient mountain ranges, and rises steeply to the Crown Range, which is the highest mountain pass in New Zealand. Cardrona Valley is classified as an Outstanding Natural Landscape – deservedly so, the vistas are breath taking. Cardrona is just 40 minutes from Queenstown but feels like you have stepped into an untouched world.
Malt: After selecting the site, what were the key features in the distillery design that you wanted to have in place?
Desiree: The details were of critical importance to me. The distillery was to be exclusively malt fed – for all of its spirits. A lauder mash tun was essential. Full copper for the Whisky pot stills goes without saying. I wanted smaller stills for a greater interaction between the spirit and the copper, and being in a country without the quirks of history setting standards for minimum sized still allowed that freedom. Our wash still is 2,000 litres, and the spirit still 1,300 litres.
Malt: How was the presence of a distillery received locally?
Desiree: The Cardrona Valley is classified as an outstanding natural landscape, and the build required an environment court hearing to proceed. 100% of the Cardrona Valley turned out to support the distillery, which was really humbling.
Malt:Apart from the prior existence of Willowbank, New Zealand isn’t widely known for its whisky. How is the whisky scene in NZ now compared to when you first started exploring single malts?
Desiree: New Zealand Whisky is in still in its formative years – it is really exciting to see the different styles and individual distillery characters emerging.
Malt: You source your own malt, how many farms do you work with and did your background in farming provide insight into the varieties of grain available?
Desiree: We currently source our malt from Bury St Edmunds in the UK. New Zealand Whisky making is very much in its infancy and at our start up 5 years ago we could not get the barley varieties I wanted for our Whisky. To make an analogy with the wine industry, you cannot make a great Sauvignon blanc with Muller Thurgau grapes. The Whisky industry is developing and the market is now starting to respond to the needs of our fledgling industry. In the last year or so New Zealand has finally started growing these varieties and we are looking to team up with local farmers here.
Malt: Have you experimented with yeast?
Desiree: Yes, we do and with the natural strains of Lacto bacillus local to our place in Cardrona that live in a distillery that give each distillery’s spirit its own distinct character. These are not added to the Whisky, but their natural presence is encouraged. This lends a rich, creamy texture to the spirit on the tongue, that is characteristic of Cardrona spirit.
Malt: Your stills are from Forsyth’s, which are not a common feature within several new distilleries nowadays. How important was it to have your stills from Scotland’s traditional coppersmith?
Desiree: I investigated stills from a whole range of different companies. I met Richard Forsyth, Snr very briefly on his stand at an American Distillers Institute conference, and was lucky enough to be able to visit at their premises in Rothes. The Forsyths were so incredibly helpful and genuine. Forsyth’s copper pot stills are the best the in world, so really the choice was very easy at the end of the day. But the Forsyths did even more. To make white spirits (Gin, Vodka), I had found a 7.5m second-hand never used Jacob-Carl column still, which I had relocated to Cardrona. The only instructions however was a few pages of blue print. Richard Jnr and one of his engineers sat for hours in their meeting room with me, working out how this still worked – which they didn’t make and hadn’t sold me – simply to help me. The Forsyths are salt of the earth people.
Malt: What was your thought process to the design of each still and were there any influences?
Desiree: The stills are small, 2,000 litre wash still and a 1,300 litre spirit still. Small to increase the spirit’s contact with the copper. In addition, each have an onion or a boil ball in the neck – again to increase reflux. Relatively short necks, increases the oiliness, so all of these things work in tandem to counter-balance the other. They, in essence, are miniature Glenfarclas stills, but of course the key difference of size has a dramatic impact upon the spirit.
Malt: At Smogen, Pär Caldenby, was influenced by his love of old-style Highland Park and Lagavulin – did any distilleries shape what you wanted Cardrona to taste like?
Desiree: My vision for Cardrona was a rich but sweet spirit – depth and character, but with delicate notes. I wanted Cardrona to be Cardrona – with depth and layers in the spirit’s beauty.
Forsyths sent Harry Cockburn to commission the distillery for us. Harry was former manager of Bowmore Distillery and had the wisdom only imparted by half a century’s experience. Harry was able to calibrate the distillery to make that vision come to life.
Malt: The original vision was to release your whisky after a decade of maturation, yet here we are with Just Hatched after 3 years. What prompted this change and can you expand a little on the composition of Just Hatched?
Desiree: Cardrona is here for the long-term, and Cardrona is here to make Great Whisky – not just ride on the rising tide of Whisky regaining fashion status. I was rather dogmatic in my view that we would not release until the spirit had ten years maturation, and those that know me know I can be stubborn. But Scotsman Michael Fraser-Milne, had other ideas. Michael lives in New Zealand and is a major importer of Scotch into New Zealand. Michael forged his team, including Dave Broom, Charles Maclean, Alex Bruce, Anthony & Kathy Wills, and arranged a visit of the distillery. After spending many hours tasting through our warehouse, the group converged to convince us that the Whisky community as a whole wanted to taste how the spirit was coming along. Ardbeg’s reopening progress reports were used as an example. Their logic overcame my objections, and thus the release of “Just Hatched.” Just Hatched is named as such as it is Whisky that has only just achieved the title of Whisky – it has only just come of age – it is just hatched.
There are a number of expressions in the “Just Hatched” range. We have released a number of Single Cask bottlings, including Oloroso, ex-Bourbon, ex-Pinot noir. The classical expression is a solera marriage of Oloroso and bourbon matured casks.
Malt: It is unusual for us in the UK to have the ability to purchase a debut release from New Zealand. I’m sure there is a strong appetite locally for your whisky, but what compelled you to expand its distribution from such an early age?
Desiree: Cardrona has entered the UK with its Gin, Single Malt Vodka and liqueurs, as well as Just Hatched. The volumes of Whisky are very limited as we are a very small boutique distillery. The reason we have started with the UK is primarily due to the demand we have experienced from that side of the world from so early on.
Malt: Bottle sizes is a growing debate within the industry and amongst consumers. We’ve seen 50cl and 20cl options of late, but you’ve decided upon a half bottle size. What prompted this and how has it been received?
Desiree: We decided to release our progress report “Just Hatched” at natural cask strength so that the Whisky community could taste the spirit undiluted. Then add water to taste. The spirit is very precious, and thus the smaller sized bottle.
Malt: You have Joseph as your ambassador in the UK, which shows a commitment and ambition. What are your plans for the UK market?
Desiree: We are extremely lucky to have Joseph as Territory Manager in Scotland. We first met Joe when he was living and working in Wellington, New Zealand, where he championed Cardrona for us.
Cardrona is fortunate have four other Territory Managers dotted through the island, and our Country Manager is a Yorkshire lass, Georgia Clappison, now based in Marlow, Bucks.
Our Global Marketing Manager, Rachel Lavalette, also lives in the UK – so we have a critical mass of spirit lovers spreading the word there.
Malt: The focus is whisky, but you also produce gin and vodka on site – the latter being surprisingly good. Your gin is remarkably popular in New Zealand. Was the intention to always produce a range of spirits at the distillery from outset to enable cashflow?
Desiree: The distillery was designed from the outset to produce the three spirits from scratch. Each spirit style requires a different type of still, and all is fed from the same mash tun and wash backs, so had to be hardwired into the design of the distillery.
We won a Gold Medal at the New York World Wine and Spirits Competition for the Source Gin. But, the Single Malt Vodka is an absolute rarity.
Malt: Given the positivity around Just Hatched what comes next from Cardrona?
Desiree: We are planning the next of our progress reports as a six year old, and a final at 8 years before we release our signature 10 year old.
My thanks to Desiree for taking the time to our questions, during what must have been a difficult period.
This Cardrona ticks a lot of boxes being non chill-filtered and bottled at a cask strength of 64.4%. It is just 3 years old in case you were in doubt and features a mix of ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks. You can purchase this via Master of Malt for £73.95 and I do have to point out this is only for a dinky 35cl bottle. The Whisky Exchange is asking £74.95 for this release as well.
Cardrona Just Hatched – review
Colour: a rich honey.
On the nose: white grapes, heather, orange notes with honey and vanilla. Not a heavily sherried youngster thankfully. Cereal notes with oats, toffee, a little waxiness, flashes of youthful spirit and popcorn. Adding water unlocks more citrus apples and a sense of damp wood with some floral notes.
In the mouth: a nice density and texture from the off, with lemon zest, honey, grapefuit, vanilla, ginger root and oils. It can take water, but the whisky doesn’t reveal any nuances beyond toffee, leather and beeswax.
So, this has just hatched and I’m thankful for the honesty. In Scotland, we’ve had numerous whiskies from fledgeling distilleries that do their best to hide the age. In doing so, a consumer might be misled into thinking this is it and the final product is good to go.
They are all drinkable to a certain extent, but often watered down or layered in a variety of casks that seek to hide flaws and bring some much-needed characteristics. Whisky shouldn’t be hurried. It’ll tell you when it’s ready and patience is indeed the greatest virtue.
This Cardrona is young and the first foot in the door towards something better. I’m impressed enough to watch out for more. The presentation is promising and bottling at cask strength is a wise decision: there is more vigour and essence here of what the distillery is going to become. As a taster of what’s to come, it works well. Where things stumble a little, are mid-palate, and the asking price for a 35cl bottle. A tricky decision as this whisky has travelled across that sphere to reach us. The costs and implications cannot be underestimated, or the bravery in an extremely competitive UK marketplace.
I’m sure we’ll be visiting New Zealand again, sooner, rather than later.
My thanks to Joseph for the remnants of a bottle. And there are commission links above if you wish to purchase a bottle. Photographs provided by Cardrona excluding the bottle shot.