DESIREE REID once spent her mornings checking on her cows.
She now spends them sampling casks of mountain-matured single malt and can be largely credited with putting New Zealand whisky on the map.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she has picked up a few stories along the way – along with plenty of awards.
Cardrona has won New Zealand's Best Single Malt in the World Whisky Awards 2020 and 2021 – and named one of the top 50 whiskies ever reviewed by Whisky Magazine.
We caught up with her over a dram of whisky that she crafted in one of New Zealand’s most heartbreakingly beautiful valleys.
First ever whisky memory?
My very first memory is of a small nip from a bottle of Bushmills that Dad had been gifted in the cupboard.
The better answer, though, is that I suspended university studies part-way through a law degree and bought a one-way ticket to London where I picked up hospitality jobs.
Being behind the bar, I became increasingly fascinated by whisky – from the shapes of the bottles to the golden and amber hues of the liquid inside.
Of course, it wasn’t until much later than I got involved with actually making the stuff – a fair few other things happened in the meantime – but that’s probably where it started.
You’re a farmer turned distiller. How did that happen?
I grew up on a dairy farm near a small town in South-Canterbury. Seeing how hard my parents worked instilled a sense of wanting to work for myself one day. But the law studies weren’t for me, so when I returned from the UK, I transferred my major to business.
I then ran my own farm after graduating and took on a Nuffield Scholarship to study farming abroad. On completion of the scholarship – which involved a tonne of travel and research – I did a bit of soul-searching.
But, I still hadn’t found my thing. My marriage had ended, I sold my dairy farm, and I started writing lists. Out of hundreds of ideas, I landed on perfume making – initially.
Of course, I needed to learn how to make alcohol to make perfume.
I then turned my attention to distillation of spirits and set about creating a single malt from New Zealand that could actually hold its own against other world whiskies.
And, even by New Zealand standards, Cardrona is not the easiest place to get to. Why distil there?
Cardrona has held a special place in my heart since I was a child.
The [Cardrona] valley is utterly defined by extreme conditions; high altitude, low humidity, and dramatic temperature changes.
When people are traversing the Crown Range of mountains between Queenstown and Wanaka, the distillery is one of the few places they can stop. And they suddenly get it.
They see the valley as more than a postcard-esque idyll of snow-capped peaks and golden slopes. As not yet another generic spot in the hills waiting on campervanning millennials to ‘discover’, but as a raw, unrelenting place to live.
One of the world’s most legendary drives now has an added purpose; to tell the story of this place.
Likewise, even in the context of world whiskies, New Zealand doesn’t always even get a mention. How much work is needed to change that?
A bit. But, we’re getting there. Wherever possible, we bring people to the valley. They see why we’re here and they take the story home with them.
And, it’s working; our three-year old “Just Hatched” bottling won New Zealand’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards. It was also named one of the top 50 whiskies ever reviewed by Whisky Magazine.
As our stock got older, the feedback only got even stronger. Our five-year old “Growing Wings” shows off Cardrona’s spirit type with a bit of age and our upcoming seven-year old “Full Flight” will be a bit of a preview of our first 10 year old release in a few years.
And have you been surprised by your own spirit style? Are the hallmarks of the land in that spirit?
Our spirit starts with three simple ingredients: malted barley harvested from the Canterbury Plains from where I was raised; pure alpine water from Mount Cardrona; and a special distiller’s yeast.
The idiosyncrasies of the various distillation processes bakes-in layers of character into the spirit.
It’s the smoky note on the dried, malted barley; the grind of the mill; the length of fermentation, and the shape and size of our little copper pot stills.
Our raw spirit is sweet, rich, and fiery when it is filled into oak casks. The barrels then slumber in the extreme environment of Central Otago. The valley is 600 metres above sea level and temperatures range between minus 10 and over 40 degrees with the changing seasons.
Remember that oak is porous; the raw spirit breathes in the surrounding mountain air as those seasons come and go. The resulting whisky is thus a metaphorical and literal distillation of this place.
And, thinking about maturation – it presumably helps having countless Otago vineyards on your doorstep?
We’re very lucky to be in such good company here in Central Otago. We’ve been able to forge a very special partnership with Felton Road winery to produce our pinot noir whisky cask expressions, along with some other outstanding local producers for our barrel-aged gins.
Our pinot noir-aged whisky uses a revolutionary method to preserve the casks’ rich wine seasoning, which is only possible because of our close proximity to each other.
We bring the freshly emptied barriques to the distillery within hours of the wine leaving the barrel and immediately fill with our new make spirit.
This naturally preserves the fresh and vibrant red fruit seasoning of the wood, without having to re-char the cask first, a process which destroys much of the wine character soaked into the wooden staves.
The pandemic saw us all drinking a lot more at home. Curiously, though, it also saw us spending more; top-shelf wines and whiskies did just fine as the world was imploding. What does that say about what we’re all going to be drinking in the coming years?
The premiumisation trend has been prevalent for many years now, as people drink less but better. And is no longer just about good liquid and packaging. People want to know more about the people behind a brand: the story, the place, the care and responsibility taken towards the environment.
People are savvier; they have a wealth of information at their fingertips and they care about the way their whiskies are made.
And we’re proud of how we make ours, so we’re ready to tell that story.
For more information on Cardrona Distillery, see cardronadistillery.co.uk