The Cardhu distillery (known as Cardow at the time) was
officially founded in 1824 by John Cumming - a farmer who
allegedly had been involved with illegal distillation before.
Rumour has it that John had been using illicit stills at the
site for at least a decade before jumping at the chance to
'legitimise' it after the Excise Act of 1823 was passed.
In 1960/1961 Cardow was completely rebuilt and the number of stills was
expanded from four to six. That was also the time it became available (again)
as a bottled single malt whisky - which was quite a novelty at the time.
In 1839, John's son Lewis Cumming took over the reigns
at the distillery and since then Cardhu has fared better than
many of its neighbours and competitors - especially after
it was rebuilt from scratch on another location. .
In 1872 John Cumming's daughter-in-law Elizabeth Cumming
(apparently on a whim) decided to build a brand new distillery
on an adjacent piece of property. Cardow was extended in
1887 before it was obtained purchased in 1893 by a small
company with the namesJohn Walker and Sons Ltd.
Yep, that's right - the same Johnnie Walker that's depicted on the blends. John Walker and Sons merged with
DCL just a few decades later, in 1925. Even today, Cardhu malt is a key component of the Johnnie Walker blends.
After the invention of blended whisky in the middle of the 19th century, more
and more of the malt whiskies had been used in blends; a mix of malt whisky
and grain whisky - see the Beginner's Guide for more information on that...
The official name of the distillery was changed from Cardow to Cardhu
around the year 1980, so it’s still possible to find ‘antique’ bottles with the
old name at auctions and specialists. Since 1986 the Cardhu distillery is
owned by United Distillers, formerly part of the Guiness Group, now Diageo.
Cardhu has never been a very 'high profile' single malt, but I have to admit
that I have a bit of a soft spot for it. One reason is quite superficial; I love the
look and feel of the bottle. Around the year 2000 nicely designed bottles
became less rare, but when I started my voyage of discovery through maltland
in the early 1990's there really weren't that many other attractive bottles available.
With the notable exception of Balvenie and Bowmore, most other (official) single malts came in fairly dull bottles.
Sure, some labels looked nice, but as far as the 'overall package' was concerned the shelves of the average
liquorist were hardly 'a feast for the eyes' during the 1990's...
The distillery offers various guided tours of facilities, ranging from
a regular “Distillery Tour” that costs £5.00 and lasts for 40 minutes
(including a free dram) to a “Cardhu Collection Tour” that costs
£19.00, lasts longer and includes six drams and a free glass.
Especially after the Brexit in 2016, that last option sounds like a pretty sweet deal for international visitors...
1) The name Cardhu means 'Black Rock' in Gaelic...
6) In 2010, almost three quarters of the total production of
Cardhu malt whisky (some 70%, to be precise) wasn't bottled
as a single malt. Instead, inferior grain whisky is added (as well
as possibly other malt whiskies) to turn it into ‘Johnnie Walker’.
7) Cardhu distillery uses a lauter mash tun that can hold eight tonnes. The mash tun is made from stainless
steel, and so are two of the washbacks. The other 8 washbacks are made out of wood; larch and Douglas fir.
5) Shortly before the introduction of the Cardhu vatted malt
whisky in 2003, more than 3,000,000 bottles of Cardhu single
malt whisky were sold around the world every year - a lot of
them in Southern Europe, particularly Spain and Italy.
2) The picturesque buildings around the Cardhu distillery
include five dunnage warehouses with room for 7,500 casks.
4) ... in fact, the link between Cardhu and the Johnnie Walker
brand was so strong that ‘Johnnie’ appeared on Cardhu boxes.
3) Around the turn of the millennium Cardhu was Diageo's
biggest selling malt whisky - and it's also an important ingredient
of (almost?) all of Diageo's Johnnie Walker blended whiskies.
2002 - After Cardhu has been a relatively low profile
single malt whisky for at least a decade (although it
was very popular in Spain), Diageo replaces the single
malt with a vatted malt whisky - with a virtually
identical bottle and label. This did not go over well...
2005 - The Cardhu 12yo single malt whisky is
reintroduced as part of Diageo’s greatly extended
'Classic Malts' range. So, Cardhu became much
more 'classic' overnight. At the same time, a 22yo
official bottling of Cardhu is released.
2010 - The sales of Cardhu in its main market Spain have decreased by 40% since 2004.
2011 - Dropping sales of the 12yo expression in some markets over the previous years allowed Cardhu to expand
the centre of their portfolio. Both a 15yo and an 18yo official bottling are added to the core line-up.
2004 - After continued protests from customers
and competitors alike, Diageo withdraws their new
Cardhu vatted / blended malt whisky.
2014 - Following the lead of many competitors, Cardhu releases two “no age statement” expressions.
Wih names like “Amber Rock” and “Gold Reserve” they are guaranteed to attract a modestly affluent market...
2017 - Diageo unveils a new 18yo expression of Johnnie Walker with Cardhu as a major component.
Bottlings of Cardhu are not hard to come by - at least if you want the 12yo official bottling.
There have been a bottling in UD's 'Rare Malts' series and a 22yo OB, but independent bottlings are scarce.
That's why I haven't actually sampled that many different expressions of Cardhu so far. That's why my tasting
notes include several different batches of the 12yo. I've only sampled a handful of independent bottlings...
By the time older OB’s were released, malt whisky price tags had already pulled them out of my comfort zone.
Cardhu NAS 'Special Cask Reserve' (40%, OB, batch # Cs/cR.07,04, Bottled +/- 2007)
Nose: Settles down after a melon attack. Hint of oil. Cardboard? Werther's Original (caramel candy)?
The faintest hint of organics? Some dust? There is some complexity, but you have to work quite hard at it.
Taste: Rather nondescript apart from the spirity bite. An unexpected hint of Salmiak in the flat finish.
Score: 73 points - I can see how there's a large "mass market" for the Cardhu single malt whisky.
It's really a lot like a better class of blend - blandish, but you don't get the unpleasantness of grain whisky.
Cardhu 22yo 1982/2005 (57.8%, OB, 3000 Bottles)
Nose: Sweet & grainy; a bit like Irish whiskey. Veggy, prickly in the back of the nose. Hint of dust.
Taste: Sweet, dusty & fruity start, big dry centre. Old fashioned cinnamon sweets. Dry. Liquorice.
Score: 80 points - not terribly complex (and not too much development) but this whisky is very drinkable.
Two classes above the standard 12yo OB, that's for sure - but that's to be expected at this age.
Although this is a good dram, it suggests that they never paid much attention to wood at Cardhu.
Cardhu 1974/2001 (54.1%, Signatory Vintage, Cask #3615, D. 26/4/1974, B. 27/8/2001, 417 Bottles)
Nose: Fruit sweets ('Rang '), lemon drops, nail polish. Tea. Later it sweetenes out with more organics.
After a while even something resembling 'antiquity' emerges - lovely complexity. We have a winner here.
Taste: Big, smooth and sweet. Excellent, but not quite spectacular enough to reach the 90's.
Score: 89 points - making it by far the best Cardhu I ever tried. Very good whisky!
Cardhu 12yo (40%, OB, 50cl, Bottled +/- 1997)
Nose: A bit sharp in the nose. Malty. Distinct aroma of yellow banana-candy 'hard foam'.
Taste: Overpowering bitterness is about all there is to tell. Otherwise: tastes like whisky...
Score: 72 points - if it had tasted as good as it smelled it would have received some more points.
Cardhu 12yo (40%, OB, 100cl, Bottled +/- 2000)
Nose: Light, as always, but perhaps just a little bit maltier? Hey, could it be caramelised?
Not a lot of development, and this time I couldn't find the banana I found in earlier batches.
Taste: On the palate it started soft, became grainier and maltier in the centre and bitter in the finish.
Really fairly nondescript; no wonder it's popular as a de luxe blend in the warm climates of Spain and Italy.
Score: 71 points - roughly in the same league as earlier batches, as far as I could tell.
Cardhu/Cardow 13yo 1987/2000 (56.9%, Cadenhead's, Bourbon, 318 Bottles)
Nose: A soft maltiness. Smooth but not very distinctive. Tea. Faint organics. Enjoyable.
It picks up a slight nose prickle with time. A good malt that lacks a little personality.
Taste: Sweet start, growing maltier first and then bitter towards the finish. Solid.
Heavy course brown bread - very distinctive. Not quite sweet enough in the finish for me.
Score: 80 points - one of the best Cardhu whiskies I’ve tried so far, but I'm sure the high proof helps.
Cardhu 27yo 1973/2000 (60.02%, UD Rare Malts, Bottled October 2000)
Nose: Much 'richer' than the old 12yo OB, but I guess that's not surprising at this strength.
There's even a hint of peat or something coastal, but the nose flattens out surprisingly fast.
Taste: it showed an unexpected hint of smoke and was quite dry. You can't taste the age.
Score: 79 points - to me, this falls just short of 'recommendable' territory - too bad.
Further proof for my theory that Cardhu might have neglected to pay enough attention to wood.
Cardhu 12yo (40%, OB, 70cl, Bottled +/- 1994)
Nose: A little sharp and grainy, but it has something I've always found easy to recognize.
It's those little yellow chemical banana-candy things. The nose developed quite nicely and slowly.
Taste: In this case I unfortunately neglected to make proper notes on the taste during this session.
Score: 73 points - just a tad below average, but very easily drinkable. And I love the bottle...
Cardhu 12yo (86 Proof, OB, Ivory Label, 100% Unblended Pot Still, NY Import, Bottled +/- 1985)
Nose: Light and a little grainy. Maybe some faint honey notes? Malty but not too expressive.
Taste: Starts quite sharp, mellowing out in the centre and becoming quite bitter in the finish.
Score: 72 points - but I should point out that Serge (80) and Olivier (78) liked this whisky better.
Cardhu 12yo (40%, OB, Old white label with black type, Bottled +/- 1975)
Nose: Fruity at first with farmy stuff in the background. Dust and cardboard? Very interesting!
Taste: Feels rougher on the palate than I would have expected, which pulls it from the upper 80's.
Score: 84 points - this whisky scores just short of the upper 80's, but miles better than the current version.
Cardhu 'Over 8 Years Old' (75 Proof, OB / John Walker & Sons, Bottled +/- 1975)
Nose: Swampy. Antiquity with a hint of something metallic. Sourish. Lapsang Souchon? Salmiak. Unique.
Taste: Very soft start. Serious. This one quickly grew on me, despite being not as sweet as I normally like.
Score: 88 points - almost the best Cardhu I ever tried. A shame I received too little pocket money in 1975...
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Cardhu malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those notes should convey my purely personal opinion. Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would
be prudent to check out some other opinions as well, for example Serge Valentin’s fantastic Whiskyfun site or
the Malt Maniacs Monitor that provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
Although Cardhu wasn't one of the big brands in the malt whisky world,
their owners Diageo evoked the wrath of anoraks worldwide when they
launched a 'new' Cardhu in 2003: the 'Cardhu Pure Malt' (a vatted malt).
Diageo overestimated the gullibility of their customer base and many people
were miffed that the company that had publicly advertised that every single
malt whisky was unique now released a simple 'blend' of malt whiskies from
different distilleries under a beloved “single malt” brand name. .
The new Cardhu vatted malt whisky was initially released in France,
Spain, Greece & Portugal. Diageo’s explanation at the time was that
they had no choice because those 'latino's' simply drank too much...
After loads of bad publicity the 'old' Cardhu was re-released.
Of course, the reason for the public outrage wasn't so much the fact
that Cardhu disappeared as a single malt (by 2003 malt lovers were
spoilt for choice after the lean years that were the 1990's), but that the
new 'vatted' bottling was virtually indistinguishable from the single malt.
The fact that this could 'blur the lines' between both categories initially
seemed to upset 'anoraks' more than the 'watchdogs' at the SWA, but
they eventually woke up and took the matter up with Diageo.
Diageo eventually resolved the situation by bringing back the 'old' Cardhu in 2005.
After being demoted to a mere ‘vatted malt’ just two years before, Cardhu now suddenly became part of their
extended range of 'Classic Malts' - along with other distilleries like Glen Elgin, Knockando and Royal Lochnagar.
Since the late 1980s there had been six 'classic' Classic Malts, but with the mere stroke of a pen, suddenly
virtually all malt whiskies in the Diageo stable became 'classics' ;-)