After a five year absense Cardhu, the venerable Speyside Scotch whisky, is returning to the United States late this summer with its subtle sweet charms of fruit and flowers. Cardhu has only appeared in America as the heart of the Johnnie Walker blend since shortages forced it off the market in 2005.
Cardhu was at the center of a controversy that ultimately caused a change in the way Scotch whisky was classified earlier in this decade. The distillery, which was established in 1824, had been used mainly to create whisky for blending since John Walker & Sons took control in 1893. By this century, its single malt had developed an avid following, especially in southern Europe. Faced with shortages its owner, Diageo, decided to bottle the single malt as part of a blend of other malts, which it labeled Cardhu Pure Malt. The move resulted in an outcry among whisky purists and Cardhu—under any name—was taken off American shelves. The 12-year-old has sold as a single malt in Europe since 2005.
In 2006, the Scotch Malt Whisky Association altered the rules by which Scotch whisky is labeled. Prior to that time the terms "vatted malt," and, in the cases of Cardhu and Johnnie Green Label, "pure malt" were often used to describe a mixture of single malts from several distilleries. The SWA decreed that such whisky be designated "blended malts." This classification differs from "blended Scotch whisky" in that the latter contains grain whiskies and the former does not. Malts are made only from barley and distilled in pot stills. Grain whiskies are made from a combination of barley and other cereals and distilled in column stills.
Originally owned by the Cumming family, stills have operated at the Cardhu site on Mannoch Hill, overlooking the river Spey, since 1811. Until 1824, when John Cumming obtained a license, the whisky was illicit. Cumming's daughter-in-law would later take over, becoming one of Scotland's first great female distillers and expanding the operation immensely before selling to Walker.
The distillery, set on the north side of the river valley, is a very picturesque location and provides an excellent tour. Cardhu's elegant, swan-neck copper stills contribute to the soft, silky character of the whisky. Despite this smoothness, the 12-year-old is deceptively flavorful.
Cardhu 12-year-old Highland Scotch Whisky
Appearance: Medium to light color, olive oil, faintest green, plump legs.
Nose: Floral, candied nose of fruits (peaches and pears), heather and honey.
Palate: Light, but flavorful with a silky character. Hard candy, honey spices and slight anise. It develops a hint of Stilton as you chew through it. A lush malty, bread character crops up momentarily in mid-palate. The slightest hint of peat.
Finish: The finish anchors you to the rich hard-candy and honey flavors that inform this malt and has a medium length.
Cigar pairing: You'll be tempted to smoke something mild with this, but it's worth it to push into the medium-bodied range in the search for flavor synergy.