Tell our readers about your role at Cardrona Distillery.
I'm the founder of Cardrona Distillery. This was my dream. It was a five-year journey from the seed of an idea to the day the first spirit ran on the stills. It's been twelve years to this point.
What gave you the idea to found the distillery?
It was a really long journey. It certainly wasn't a straight line. The seed was sown when I was aged 20. I had taken a break from my degree and bought a one-way ticket to the UK. I ended up pulling pints. One place that I worked at was the Ladbroke Arms in Notting Hill. The owner at the time had a wonderful collection of malts. The different shapes of bottles and colours really caught my eye.
Then, my mum came over for my 21st birthday and we went up to Scotland where her family come from, and we went on a bus tour. One of the stops was Edradour. I can't honestly say that I sat there thinking that one day I'd go on to build a whisky distillery but probably those are the experiences that sowed the seed.
Then fast-forward, I went home, finished my degree, and went farming. I had a very lucky run through to farm ownership with my first husband. But the worst happened, and we separated. I started doing a whole lot of soul-searching and started making lists of business ideas, researching them, then scrapping the lot.
On my list came an idea of making properly made perfume all from scratch so I had to learn how to make alcohol. I started travelling to the States to learn how to make vodka because vodka undiluted is perfumery alcohol.
At a conference in the States, I stumbled across a man called Dave Pickerell who was former Head of Maker's Mark. He was just incredible, so I scoured the programme and went to all of his workshops. He took me under his wing, and he mentored me from the United States. Perfume sort of fell away to whisky - and here we are!
What were the first couple of years like when you were creating the distillery?
I formed the company in 2011 and it was two and a half years of research. It took six months to find the appropriate site. It took another whole twelve months after this to get all the consents. Then another whole year to build. It was five years from the beginning of the research to the spirit flowing from the stills - which happened on my 37th birthday!
What was this process like for you?
The research phase is very much like scuba diving. It's very quiet and solitary, and you look at things yourself. The start-up phase is like white-water rafting. It's turbulent and you've got to listen to the captain. I'm the captain so I'm making those calls to keep the business afloat and keep everybody on the raft. Then once the business matures, it becomes a rowing eight where everybody is in unison.
Do you remember your first experiences of dipping your toe into the world of whisky?
There was a dram at Edradour which I tried on the bus tour. We were given our drams and they were delicious. However, my mum was tee-total. By the end of the tour, my mum hadn't touched hers and that was not acceptable. So, she took the glass from my hand and thrust hers into mine and so I got to enjoy my second dram of Edradour very quickly. That was the first real taste of whisky.
In terms of the industry, the taste of the people and the culture was something I found incredibly embracing and very open. Dave Pickerell and Richard Forsyth [of Forsyths] were incredibly giving of their time. I really appreciated that.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
It's incredibly varied. I have fifty people working for me in a range of different teams. My job is to direct those teams and make sure we're focused on the right activities. That can go from sales team meetings to different trade events to being in the distillery itself. I also have two children, so it's been a very big seven years with them coming along on that journey as well.
Could you tell our readers about the wonderful team that you have working with you at Cardrona Distillery?
At the distillery, we're led by a lady called Sarah Elsom. She's our Master Distiller. She has a degree in winemaking and is very capable in fermentation. And, of course, if you don't create the flavours in fermentation then you'll never be able to distil them. She brings a wonderful expertise in that area.
We have an all-female team at the distillery at the moment. It's not by design, it's just how it happens to be. Then, there's our front of house team who are excellent at what they do. Finally we have to sales teams - one in New Zealand and one in the UK. They're out there waving the flag for us.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
The day the spirit flowed was pretty special. The spirit flowed for my birthday, and we laid our first cask two weeks later on my mother's 60th birthday on 5th November. We have a party at the distillery every year on that night. This year, it was a black tie or Scottish formal and we have 700 people - Cardrona's nearest and dearest - who came to the party all dressed to the nines.
Cadrona Distillery utilises a number of different cask finishes. Tell us more about this.
The casks are very traditional. We make whisky to the highest of standards, traditionally and properly. We bring our casks in whole from Kentucky [for bourbon casks] and Joe Miguel in the south of Spain [for sherry casks].
We use red wine casks, too. This is special as we live in the heart of New Zealand's best Pinot noir making area. Felton Road provides us with our red wine casks. There is one extremely busy time in a winery's year, which is when they make the wine and they're bottling it at the same time. Normally, you cannot go near a winery during that time. However, Felton Road really love the fact they've got Cardrona on their doorstep. The day that they dump the casks, they ring us, and my dad goes over with this very large trailer, picks up all of the casks that they've retired that year, and brings them back to Cardrona. We fill them that day to preserve the beautiful, fresh, rip, red fruit notes.
The distillery is in New Zealand. What kind of impact does the climate have on the whisky?
We have this very well-made whisky in an extreme environment. We're sitting at 600 metres above sea level, which changes the boiling point of alcohol, so it changes the way it behaves in the still. It also changes the way it behaves inside the cask when it's maturing and the way the angels interact with the casks.
Added to that, unless it's raining, it's 0 per cent humidity. It's a very dry environment, again, changing the way the angels interact with the casks during the maturation. We have an enormous swing in temperature. In winter, it can be -10°C and then in summer 40°C.
Do you think that whisky is beginning to appeal to a wider demographic?
It's very fashionable to drink single malt now and it's wonderful for the industry. It's great for those who are broadening their experiences and drinking less but better, which I think is a really important trend at the moment. I think the beautiful thing about whisky is that it's such an everyman's drink. It's approachable and it has no snobbery. It's a drink that everybody loves to enjoy and share.
Can you give us any hints about upcoming releases the distillery might have?
We've followed what Ardbeg did when they started producing again and came into the market with Very Young, Still Young, and Almost There. When we turned three years and a day, we released Just Hatched. At five years, we released Growing Wings. We've just turned seven and the cask that we've selected for the single cask release of our final progress report was bottled in mid-January, and that will be full-flight.
What is your personal favourite expression that you've created at the distillery so far?
I love sherry. The Full Flight that's coming out, the single cask, is delicious.
Could you tell our readers something about the distillery they might not already know about?
The well was dug by my father, so the well's name is Alvin's Well. Alvin's Well is the water source of The Cardrona distillery.
What is it that makes Cardrona Distillery stand out from the crowd?
The experiment of the extreme environment and what that's doing to the maturation and the development of the whisky. That's what makes Cardrona stand out.
What goals do you have for the future of the distillery?
The same goal from the beginning: to make great whisky.
The original feature is from the Winter 2022/23 edition of Whiskeria, delivered to the door of W Club subscribers and also free with any Whisky Shop purchase in store or online.