It’s hard to mention Cardhu and not think of the Single Malt/Pure Malt fiasco that pretty much wiped it off the map for a few years. It’s sort of the Scotch whisky version of the new Coke debacle of the mid-80’s. Actually, come to think of it, the mid-80’s were pretty much a debacle in general, other than SST and Repo Man, but that’s another story. This story goes that in 2003, Diageo, faced with ever increasing demand for Cardhu (it’s really popular stuff in Spain) decided to change its 12 year old from a single malt to a vatted malt or blended single malt, meaning a blend of single malts from more than one distillery. That in and of itself wasn’t enough to set off the ensuing shitstorm, it was their decision to call this new Cardhu “Pure Malt” and to barely change the labeling and packaging at all that really fired up the rest of the Scotch world. The industry was very concerned (to put it lightly) that this new, sneaky pure malt would sully the integrity and standard set by single malt Scotch and distilleries that make it. Of course, other vatted malts existed at the time, but it was Diageo’s “invention” of a new varietal, Pure Malt, and lack of clarity in the labeling that had people worried. The company did back down and change the packaging, but the damage was done, sales plummeted and by 2006, the Pure Malt was no more, the Single Malt back in the line-up. Partly as a result of the whole dust-up, the Scotch Whisky Association passed a new set of standards in 2009 clarifying just what the different types of whisky were and what they could be called.
So, yeah, marketing blunders are marketing blunders, and while occasionally funny to those of us who find that kind of thing occasionally funny, they can also be small tragedies when they nearly destroy a decent product. Luckily, Cardhu weathered the storm and in the last year has made its welcome return to the US market. This Speyside distillery was officially founded in 1824 by a man named John Cumming, who for years prior was involved in some non-officially founded distilling in the same location. It was built anew in a nearby location in the 1880’s with the increased production catching the eye of John Walker and his sons who bought huge amounts of Cardhu for their increasingly popular blended whisky. A few years later, in 1893, Johnnie Walker figured, “what the hell” and bought the distillery outright. Eventually falling under the umbrella of Diageo, Cardhu’s malt is still today a fundamental part of the Johnnie Walker line. Part of Diageo’s Classic Malts Selection, Cardhu is available in this 12 year old expression, a “Special Cask Reserve” and a smattering of special releases over the years.
The Nose: Ripe, ripe apple, almost a bruised apple sweetness. Underneath that, there’s nice mild-mannered honeyed grain, French vanilla and a very slight herbaceous touch – fennel and damp wood. A nice, balanced, smooth nose, but perhaps just a little plain.
The Palate: A toffee and vanilla sweetened entry with fruit notes taking a back seat to more honeyed grain. Gently spicy with some drying oak and just a hint of the slightly peaty smoke to come.
The Finish: Longer than I expected and smokier, too. A bit of fruit and grain linger as well, but it was the really enjoyably swell of smoke that literally put a smile on my face.
Thoughts: In the course of one dram, Cardhu grew on me quite a bit. The nose is a bit undistinguished as is the palate, but after a few sips I realized that I really liked the way this one evolved. From the sweet ripe fruit on the nose, to the spicy grain on the palate, to the nice smoky finish, this is a really well structured malt. Granted, it’s complexity and depth won’t win many awards among smug whisky geeks, but it would be a great “beginner’s Scotch” or even an everyday dram. Around the Bay Area, I see it for around $40 which is a decent value if you’re looking for something well-made, on the light side, basic, and very drinkable.
Cardhu 12 Year Old Single Malt Whisky, Speyside