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Cardhu (pronounced: kar-DOO) is one of the few distilleries with a fairly even history in terms of ownership, having been bought up by John Walker in 1893 and remaining in the Johnnie Walker blending stable right through the 20th century to the Diageo days. It is a popular malt brand in continental Europe, especially in Spain, to the extent that it has generated a fair deal of controversy in its time. Leaving such matters aside however, the bottom line is that Cardhu is a fine malt capable of strength and elegance in the same glass and one of Scotlands quieter liquid treasures.
Stills: 3 Wash 3 Spirit
Water Source: Mannoch Hill and Lyne Burn
Capacity: 2.3 Million Litres
1960-1980: Old School Cardow
Under its original name of Cardow the distillery was expanded and partially modernised in 1960. This involved the addition of a third pair of stills bringing the total to six. Evidence that, even as early as 1960, DCL (forerunners of Diageo) were aware of the importance of Cardow/dhu in their blending recipes and wanted to make sure they had enough for the coming years. They also converted the stills to mechanical stoking and replaced the worm tubs with condensers.
It was also around this time that Cardow was released as a single malt, yet further evidence of how much confidence Cardows owners had in its distillate. Early official bottlings of Cardhu are hard to find now which is understandable as they are often spectacular. Very old fashioned and highland in style they can be beautifully waxy, farmy, metallic and elegantly fruity with quite some minerality. This is an organoleptic trend that continues in bottlings throughout the sixties and much of the seventies, but towards the end of the seventies the bottlings are starting to show distinct signs of change towards a more modern style of malt. The stills were converted fully to seam heating in 1971 which contributed to this slow evolution in style.
1980-Present: Cardhu, a malt in demand.
The name of the distillery was officially changed to Cardhu around 1980 and since then production has never faltered at Cardhu, with two thirds of production earmarked for blending and the rest as single malt for the thirsty European markets. Controversy struck in 2003 when Diageo decided to do away with the standard 12yo malt and replace it with a vatted alternative entitled Cardow, this was a mix of Cardhu and various other single malts that was designed to take the pressure of the single malt due to vast sales figures in Spain and Italy. Unsurprisingly this pissed off many of the malt nerderati as it was packaged so closely to the old single malt that it was seen by many as an unfair and misleading rip off. Diageo swiftly bowed to bad publicity and reintroduced the single malt in 2005. To this day it is focused on its key European markets and is not available in the uk.
At the same time they launched an official 22yo cask strength edition that was a timely reminder of just how good Cardhu could be as a single malt when properly aged and untampered with. This bottling is still available and offers a well-balanced look at Cardhu, full of honey, garden fruits and wood spices. Other excellent official examples are the Managers Choice 1997 single cask from 2009 that was one of the real surprise highlights of that whole silly series and the very fine 1973 27yo Rare Malts bottling.
There have never been many independent bottlings of Cardhu and most are hard to find now, there was an old 1962 by Cadenheads but it was a little wacky. One of the best examples was a 1970 23yo by the SMWS, but both of these are very hard to find these days.
Cardhu is certainly a distillery with plenty of natural character and when it is allowed to shine it does so quite beautifully. Hopefully the coming years will see some more excellent official expressions, its certainly not a distillery thats in any danger, not while a certain Mr Walker continues to be such a prominent name on whisky shelves.