Cardhu Distillery must be one of the best located distilleries in Speyside. High on the hills on the north side of the valley of the River Spey, and offering extensive views to Ben Rinnes in the south, it is set in well tended grounds ideal for picnics, complete with picnic tables. It is a distillery whose single malts are popular worldwide, and especially in southern Europe, and whose output also forms a key component of Johnnie Walker blends.
You approach Cardhu Distillery through the small settlement of Cardow. The first impression is created by the large stone warehouses as you drive onto the site. From the car park you get a broader view of the distillery, dominated by the large white production building and, nearer at hand, a modern chimney. But the two tall pagodas on top of the now disused maltings never let you forget that this is a long established distillery with a heritage to match. While Cardhu is too large to be called pretty, the combination of the distillery buildings and excellent landscaping, especially around the car park, is attractive and does give it considerable character.
The visitor centre is well signposted from the car park. Here you find a large and well stocked shop, complete with fine wall map showing Diageo's many distilleries in Speyside. There is a tendency among visitors to the area to assume that only distilleries with visitor centres exist: the map confirms the impression you get when driving around Speyside that there are many, many more less well known ones which simply get on with their primary job of making whisky.
The visitor centre is also home to a cut away model of a traditional floor maltings. In common with all but a handful of distilleries, Cardhu buys in malted barley rather than malting its own: and it is good to be able to see how that part of the process works. The distillery tour commences with the imposing mash tun. Standing in a space that does it ample justice, this is a stainless steel bodied vessel with a glowing copper domed top. A window in the top of the vessel offers an excellent view of what is happening inside.
You then move on to the impressive wooden washbacks. A number of these have been replaced in the last few years, and, presumably by coincidence, they now offer an alternating pattern of well aged dark wood washbacks and much lighter recent additions. One of the washbacks is equipped with a circular transparent hatch complete with a wiper that can be used to clear its inside surface, giving a view of the brewing taking place without having to experience the nasal hit of carbon dioxide that follows sticking your head too far into an active washback. As you leave the tun room you descend stairs which give excellent views of the usually hidden bottom parts of the washbacks: which, like icebergs, are usually mostly out of sight. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
The still house is home to an impressive line of six gleaming stills. The three wash stills are at one end, and the three spirit stills are at the other. The two types of still do not appear to differ greatly in size, but can be readily distinguished by the windows in the necks of the wash stills, and by the colour of the fixtures and fittings. As in many distilleries those associated with wash stills are red, and those associated with spirit stills are light blue.
You then move on to a viewing area within one of the bonded warehouses, complete with a window in which cobwebs have been cultivated for, it seems, at least as long as the resident spirit has been maturing (and one cask on view when we visited carried a filling date of 2 October 1985). Coupled with a friendly welcome and well-guided tour, the location and layout make Cardhu an extremely good distillery to visit for those looking for a clear overview of the distillery process and a good day out.
Cardhu's origins date back to 1810 when a farm at Cardow was being worked by a farmer who also ran a profitable sideline as an illicit distiller: one of very many who did so across the area at the time. The relative seclusion of the location and the proximity of the hills to the north meant that when the excisemen came calling, the farmer could hide on higher ground while his wife treated the visitors to dinner. When they had gone she removed a red flag hung on the back of the barn and he knew it was safe to reappear.
The 1823 Excise Act meant it was worthwhile for small distillers to turn legitimate, and the family developed Cardow Distillery with considerable success. In 1886 Cardow Distillery was relocated to a neighbouring site and rebuilt from scratch on a larger scale. The old stills and equipment were sold for £120 to William Grant to form the basis of Glenfiddich Distillery, which he was building at the time in Dufftown. The owner branded the product as "Cardhu", presumably because they thought that the Gaelic form of the name (which translates as "black rock") was more marketable: but the distillery name remained "Cardow".
On 19 September 1893 the distillery was sold to John Walker & Sons of Kilmarnock for £20,500. In 1899 a new railway station was built at Knockando, a little down the hill from the distillery, which allowed much cheaper transport of raw materials and finished product. In the same year the number of stills was increased from two to four. Further expansion took place in 1902 and the distillery was updated, with condensers replacing worm tubs.
John Walker & Sons became part of Distillers Company Limited (DCL) in 1925. Johnnie Walker's blends remained among their leading brands, ensuring a continuing strong demand for Cardow's output, which formed an important component. During the 1960s the production areas of the distillery were largely rebuilt. The result was an increase in the number of stills from four to the six you see today. At the same time the stills were converted from coal fired to steam heated. A long standing cause of confusion was brought to an end in 1981 when the distillery name was changed to Cardhu, to bring it into line with the well established name of its single malt whiskies; and the visitor centre opened its doors in 1988.
DCL eventually became part of Diageo, and both Cardhu and Johnnie Walker are brands that remain recognised all over the world. Cardhu single malt whisky now enjoys annual sales of more that 3 million bottles and it is the 6th best selling single malt in the world. The distillery name did revert back to Cardow briefly in 2003, to allow it to market a vatted malt (a combination of the product of several distilleries) under the Cardhu brand, but this was short lived and the distillery name has since returned to the better known Cardhu.