Speyside has many pretty distilleries. It also has some very large and very small distilleries. Distilleries which are easy to find and those which aren’t. Cardhu is none of these. It is a medium sized, not unattractive and slightly off the beaten track but not difficult to find. But find it is worth doing.
A little over five miles off the A95, Cardhu looks like a typical distillery. Large white buildings surrounding not one but two pergola roofs. This distillery was built in 1885 to 1886. But the story didn’t start there. The original Cardhu was built in 1811 by John and Helen Cumming at Cardow farm on the Mannoch hill. This was a very small still producing enough spirit to sell to the locals and travellers passing through the area. It must have become commercial enough as John took out a licence in 1824 under the new licence act. Cardhu continued under John and Helen until 1846 when John died aged 72 and his son Lewis took over the lease on the farm. The distillery remained with Lewis for another twenty six years, producing small amounts. The distillery itself was no bigger than a small cottage. In 1872 Lewis died and Helen’s daughter in law Elizabeth Cumming took over the management of the distillery. It is known that Elizabeth ran the distillery very well and was a well-known character in the whisky world at that time. Just two years after Elizabeth took over, Helen, who distilled the first batch died aged 97.
Such was Elizabeth’s success, that in 1885 a new piece of land was purchased and over the next two years a bigger new distillery was built. The old stills were sold to William Grant for £120, he was building Glenfiddich Distillery in Duftown.
With greater production, much of the whisky was sold to John Walker & Sons of Kilmarnock who were using it in their blended whisky. In 1893 Elizabeth and her son John sold the distillery for £20,500 to John Walker & Sons on September the 19th. Shortly afterwards in 1894 Elizabeth died. Her son John built a new home further down the Spey in Aberlour called Dowans.
In 1899 a new station was built at Knockando, this made the distribution of Cardhu much easier and cost effective. Two more stills were added to the previous two, a larger mash tun was installed and the building extended to accommodate more wash backs. A few years later more improvements were made by the Walkers. They added a building to dry draff in, a steam engine was installed as the boiler and condensers replaced the old worm tubs. The distillery ran smoothly until the First World War. In 1917 all distilleries were ordered to stop production to conserve stocks of barley for food. This forced closure lasted until 1919. The distillery began distilling again and continued for the next forty years with little improvements, but in 1960 large improvements were made. In June the majority of the distillery was demolished to make way for better equipment giving a higher output, and greater economy. The Character of the whisky reputedly stayed the same. In 1971 Two more stills were added to make six in total, and coal stopped being used when all of the stills were converted to internal heating by steam using an oil fired boiler.
Little has changed since then. The name changed in 1981 from Cardow to Cardhu, The word "Cardhu" derives from the Scots Gaelic Carn Dubh, meaning "Black Rock" and The distillery is known as the spiritual home of Johnnie Walker.
As Cardhu was bought by John Walker & Sons to secure supply for their blend, so it is today under the ownership of Diageo that sbout 70% of Cardhu is used for blending to help create Johnnie Walker and 30% is bottled as single malt whisky. Cardhu is most popular in southern Europe, especially Spain and Greece. A visitor centre was built and opened in 1988 and is open all year around.
By Colin Hampden-White