How did a Kiwi farmer from a teetotal family fall in love with whisky and shape a country’s category? We talk to Cardrona Distillery’s CEO and founder Desiree Whitaker to find out.

Desiree Whitaker is something of a seasoned distillery traveller. Despite being born into a teetotal family, over the years she’s visited well in excess of 50 distilleries. Her journey began out of passion but eventually becoming valuable research. Her first was Edradour on her 21st birthday with her mum. Jameson’s and the Koval Distillery in Chicago followed later, and from there she was hooked. “I travelled many times for the next few years to trawl through the distilleries, big and small, many with multiple repeat visits,” she says. 

Whitaker’s love of whisky didn’t initially lead to a career, however. For years she was successfully running a farm. It wasn’t until early 2011 when Whitaker made a list of the things she wanted to achieve that she realised her heart was in whisky. By May 2013 she had sold her farm and moved to Wanaka to find the distillery site at Cardrona.  The valley between Queenstown and Wanaka is really something, full of stunning vistas and flanked by two ancient mountain ranges with an abundance of clear water and an alpine environment ideal for maturation. It’s there she founded the distillery.

A New Zealand Fellow of the Institute of Architecture, Sarah Scott, was drafted in to design the distillery as she understood Whitaker’s vision and made it come to life. Still makers Forsyths of Rothes also helped a lot in guiding the design process. “Both Richard Snr and Richard Jnr [Forsyth] were very generous with their time,” Whitaker recalls, who also notes the impact of Harry Cockburn, former manager of Bowmore Distillery, who was sent to commission the distillery and spent three weeks training the team, bringing with him a wealth of knowledge. 

Cardrona Distillery

Say hello to the founder of Cardrona Distillery!

Making whisky the Whitaker way

She was inspired by three in particular: Woodford Reserve, Glenlivet, and Glenfarclas. The floorplan on the former, the windows in the main still room at Glenlivet, and the shape of the pot stills in Glenfarclas were all details she wanted for her distillery. She also cites the late great Dave Pickerell, ex- Maker’s Mark and WhistlePig as an influence. They met at a conference and he mentored Whitaker from afar. “Dave had an incredible mind and was very generous with his time,” Whitaker says. She’s quick to credit others but it’s clear Cardrona is the realisation of a personal vision. For Whitaker, that meant a rich, sweet, and creamy spirit.

The process begins with local barley. Although Whitaker initially imported grain from the UK, once she felt that the New Zealand malting industry had made enough strides forward (Cardrona had a role in that development) she began to source grain grown on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, specifically the Laurette variety, none of it peated. The distillery’s water comes from Alvin’s Well, named after its builder, who happens to be Whitaker’s father. Isn’t that lovely? The barley is milled to a grist with the classic 70:20:10 ratio using an Allan Ruddock four-roller mill that has the capacity to process two tonnes per hour. Whitaker wanted the distillery to be exclusively malt fed so a lauter mash tun was essential, and Forsyth’s delivered with a 1.5 tonne unit. This creates a clear wort which is then filtered through an Alfa Laval filter.

Fermentation is really interesting here. It takes place in six 10,000-litre stainless steel washbacks and lasts for 70 hours, using the Pinnacle yeast variety. But, the distillation team also encourages natural strains of wild yeast and lactobacillus. Stainless steel washbacks are very clean, an advantage in a lot of ways, but there’s really nowhere for lactobacillus to thrive like it can in the nooks and crannies you get in wooden washbacks. So the distillers will inoculate each new batch of wash with a few litres of wash from a mature batch, which encourages lactobacillus which, in turn, helps create that rich, creamy profile. It was actually a process that Dave Broom encouraged after a visit early on. 

Cardrona Distillery

Like miniature Glenfarclas stills

There’s just a single pair of copper pot stills, a 2,000-litre wash still and a 1,3000-litre spirit still. One thing Whitaker was very keen on was smaller stills for a greater copper interaction. Each also has a boil ball in the neck to increase reflux as well as relatively short necks to increase the oiliness of the texture, providing balance. 

The brand’s white spirits (gin, vodka and liqueurs are also made here) are created in a second-hand, but previously never used Jacob-Carl column still. The distillery was designed from the outset to produce three spirits from scratch. Even though each style requires a different type of still, all are fed from the same mash tun and washbacks. Maturation takes place in a mixture of ex-bourbon and sherry casks in what Whitaker describes as an extreme environment that sits at 600m above sea level. 

“We have a dry climate with just 600ml of rainfall per year and, unless it is raining, humidity is very low. Temperature can peak at 40 degrees Celsius in summer, and hit a low of negative 10 in winter,” she says. “All of these elements combine together to impact the spirit as it matures. The high altitude means that the angel’s share will evaporate at a slightly lower temperature, while the low humidity encourages a higher water to alcohol component in the angel’s share, compared to Scotland. The dramatic temperature swings mean the natural seasonal ebb and flow of interaction with wood inside the cask is elevated. Altogether, the Cardrona climate is stamping its mark into the spirit”.

Cardrona Distillery

The Cardrona area is a beautiful place to make beautiful drinks

Helping to define New Zealand whisky

What comes out of those barrels is distinctly New Zealand whisky, from start to finish. At least, by my definition. Like many countries in the process of establishing a whisky identity, there isn’t much of a legislative framework yet. When Willowbank shut down in the late 90s (worth reading this article on New Zealand’s surprisingly rich whisky heritage), Kiwi whisky barely existed anymore. Growth is on the horizon, however, and The Distilled Spirits Aotearoa (DSA) is in the process of creating its own set of guidelines for the labelling of New Zealand whisky. At present, distilleries are free to choose whether to adhere to them, but the protocol is expected to be formally recognised in the coming years.

Whitaker thinks the DSA’s new production guidelines have the potential to help shape it into a quality-led and innovative industry. “The proposed standards were developed by the New Zealand Whisky Association and our master distiller, Sarah Elsom, was a founding member. She’s a tireless advocate for entrenching high standards in the industry”. There are elements Whitaker thought could have been stronger – for example, the opportunity to remove the use of colourant – which is allowable in Scotland (Cardrona does not use colourant) and she felt that a three-year minimum time spent in cask would have been better. But, overall she believes the introduction of the legislation will prove a crucial step in building a healthy future.

There’s some discussion on whether it’s too early to define a New Zealand whisky character, which happens to be one of Whitaker’s favourite subjects. And she’s got a lot to say. “By all accounts, it is still too early to homogeneously define a Scotch whisky character. The variation is as wide as the country, from the clean fertile Speyside countryside, to the earthy peats of Islay, and the heathery peats of Orkney. Whisky is a celebration of place, and the micro-climate a distillery enjoys. Why would we want to make things homogeneous?” she says. “New Zealand is as large as the whole of Scotland, England and Wales put together – and its climate as varied. Provided the New Zealand industry is following good whisky-making practises, my view is that the successful development of our industry will be seen in a wide variation, rich with nuance, much like Scotland enjoys”.  Which makes sense, right?

Cardrona Distillery

We can’t wait to see what comes next

Cardrona Distillery: leading the way for a category

Both Cardrona and New Zealand whisky are in their formative years, but the promise is certainly there. It’s something we’ve been able to track as, much in the same way the Ardbeg released Very Young, Still Young, and Almost There, Whitaker released a series of project reports to share the spirit’s progression. She was initially committed to releasing nothing before the 10-year mark, but a team of Dave Broom, Charles Maclean, Alex Bruce, and Anthony & Kathy Wills, convinced her of the benefits of demonstrating how the spirit was coming along. Crucially, this came after they tasted what was in the Cardrona warehouse, so it’s safe to say they were as impressed as I am.

I got to try two of its early expressions, the five-year-old Growing Wings and the three-year-old Just Hatched. An Oloroso Single Cask edition and a Breckenridge Bourbon Cask of the former have also been released, but I’d move quickly if you want to get your hands on them. Both supply and the price point is an issue for now, which is nothing new or unique for that part of the world. The whiskies are also a little brash with age in places. But that’s where the negative end and the positives begin to flow.

Whitaker wanted to make a rich, sweet, and creamy spirit and you can absolutely taste it already, complete with a distinctive sun-scorched stone fruit note as well as an array of malty, chocolatey goodness. The cask influences blend beautifully with the spirit too, with the sherry, in particular, accentuating the heavier, more full-bodied elements of the new make. I asked for a second helping. Ok, I asked for a third too, if we’re being honest. It’s cracking stuff. Just as an aside, I also got to taste some white spirits and the reid Single Malt Vodka is as good as any I’ve ever had.

The potential here is massive because the process is strong. Whitaker makes whisky like an idealist, somebody who has had a deep love of the spirit and didn’t simply see a gap in the market to exploit. The country’s Scottish heritage means that there is a ready market here and it would be silly not to take advantage, of course. But Whitaker’s commitment to properly made spirits means that Cardrona is making such a mark on the whisky map.

Cardrona Spirits are available from Master of Malt. Click here to see the full range.