Speyside's Cardhu - the Extraordinary Story of the Women Behind the Whisky
In Scotland's heartland of whisky making – Speyside – sits a distillery with a most curious and unique history.
Cardhu distillery is, upon arriving at it, like many others in the area. There are beautiful stone buildings, a large forecourt, a visitor's centre, stills, washbacks, casks...the things one would expect to find at any whisky-making outpost in the region.
It is when you pierce below its surface to understand more of its past that you realize this was no ordinary distillery.
You see, the history of Cardhu is forever entangled with the stories of two of the sharpest, most inventive and strong-willed women in Scotland's early whisky narrative: Helen and Elizabeth Cumming.
The former laid the foundations for success while the latter built on those and took Cardhu to being one of the most important in the region.
But let's rewind.
Cardhu (which means Black Rock) was distilling long before licenses to do so arrived in the valley in 1824. From about 1813, records show that John Cumming was busy taking care of the farmlands while the wily Helen was equally busy running the household and distilling the whisky.
According to extracts from the insightful whisky encyclopedia by Alfred Barnard – published in 1893 – Helen was “a most remarkable character and a woman of many resources; she possessed the courage and energy of a man, and in devices and plans to evade the surveillance of the gaugers [those who hunted down illicit stills and the root of the word gauging], no man nor woman in the district could equal her.”
In short: she was rather good at hiding her work from the authorities.
It was not just her ability to hide her illegal distilling that made her a famous character. It was the fact she did it with such aplomb and respect for her neighbours. Stories go that when Helen
discovered the gaugers were on their way to do inspections, she would raise a red flag or hang out her washing to alert her neighbours and the prochahs, or boys who would run messages around the district, would see the signal and run to tell others. Then, she would invite the gaugers in, give them a bed for the night and wish them well on their way the next morning. You've got to admire her cheek!
Stories also go that she would walk all the way to Elgin – some 20 miles away – with bladders of whisky tied up underneath her skirts to sell on to willing consumers. The quality of her spirit was recognised early on so that by the time licences were being granted to distilleries such as Glenlivet (as it was known then, without a 'The'), she did not need to put that name before her product, unlike many in the region which would have used Glenlivet as a prefix to give their spirit more credibility.
Helen outlived her husband by 39 years, reaching the incredibly ripe old age of 98. Not only did she run the distillery but she also managed to have eight children and 56 grandchildren.
But while she remained – it is said – of good mind until her death, it was her daughter-in-law who eventually took on the reins. Elizabeth was the wife of Helen's son, Lewis, who had run the distillery in the late 1860s, increasing its output from 240 gallons a week to 500. When he died prematurely in 1872, it was Elizabeth who took on running the distillery.
According to Barnard: “Mrs Lewis Cumming personally conducted the business for nearly seventeen years, and to her efforts alone is the continued success of the distillery entirely due. It was this lady who enlarged the distillery in 1884, previous to which time the plant could only make 500 gallons per week; after she had made the alterations and extensive additions the new distillery turned out 1,680 gallons. As a book-keeper and correspondent, Mrs Cumming has not, in her own sex, an equal in this country.”
At that time, the distillery would have been selling most of its product on to blenders, one of which was Alexander Walker, from John Walker & Sons. In the late 1800s, the distillery was purchased by the blending house, one of the first malt distilleries in its portfolio.
Elizabeth did not simply walk away from the business that she and her mother-in-law had so faithfully built up. Instead, she ensured that her son – John Cumming – became a board member, while she continued living on the estate. She also made certain all of the distillery workers kept their
jobs and that electricity was brought to the area – one of the first places to do so in the Spey Valley.
More than 120 years later, the distillery is owned by Diageo, which of course, in turn owns Johnnie Walker. It is now the 'home' of Johnnie Walker, with an impressive corporate hospitality area incorporating the brand's history. Its output has also increased substantially – to 3.3 million litres per annum – but without the work and foundations laid by these two whisky women it wouldn't have become the place it is.
When I visited on a sunny, temperate February morning, it was with quiet appreciation for Helen and Elizabeth's work. In the stonework, the tranquility and the enduring cheek – there is a stuffed lion toy that gets placed in random parts of the distillery so look out for it if you visit – you can feel the ghosts of these women. And, in my personal belief, it is all the more enriched for it.