Some of you may be familiar with the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. The objective is to link any 2 people in Hollywood, using Kevin Bacon as a conduit, in 6 moves or less. The Kevin Bacon of scotch, for me anyway, is pretty obvious (so much for building suspense, I should’ve went with another title). The most popular single malt in the world, the most popular blended scotch in the world, and what it means to be a single malt all have one thing in common, Cardhu.
Helen and John Cumming started making whisky without a license in 1811. Like many farmers in the region, they were just trying to eke out a living. Back then, Cardhu was called Cardow. Current owners Diageo love to play up Helen’s “exploits” when it came to duping excise officers. As the story goes, whenever an officer was spotted in the area, Helen would invite them in for tea. Once inside, she’d excuse herself, scamper outside, and hoist a large red flag up a flagpole. This early warning system would give nearby distillers a chance to hide whatever needed to be hidden. I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine anyone falling for that more than once. Truth be told, John Cumming wasn’t much of a bootlegger. In 1816, he was charged with private distilling on three separate occasions. Cumming went legit in 1824, mere months after the Excise Act made it easy to do so (all you needed was 10 pounds for a licence).
I really admire people willing to paddle against the current in the pursuit of something greater. William Grant started working as a clerk at Mortlach distillery in 1866. He was a conscientious man, and like most conscientious people, he soon became a valued employee. It wasn’t long before he found himself managing the distillery. Life was good, but for a man like Grant, good was never good enough. Upon hearing the news Cardhu (then Cardow, see above) was planning a major rebuild, Grant walked nearly the equivalent of a half marathon to buy their old equipment. He now had everything he needed to start his own distillery. Grant and his family literally built everything from the ground up on a field north of Dufftown. The Gaelic name for the field was Gleann Fhiodhaich (Glenfiddich). Today, Glenfiddich is home to over 30 stills. Whenever a still needs to be added or repaired, the ones bought from Cardhu are used as a template.
By the late 1800s, Cardhu had established itself as a premier scotch whisky maker. Not only did it feature prominently in blends, but it was also sold as a single malt, a rarity at the time. In 1893, the Cumming family sold the distillery to John Walker & Sons. As part of the deal, the Cummings were allowed to stay on and run things. Cardhu has been the backbone for the Walker brand of whiskies ever since. Initially, the Cardhu/Walker whiskies were called Old Highland. There was a Special Old Highland, and an Extra Special Old Highland. (I hope they didn’t pay someone to come up with those names.) The Special one had a red label. The Extra Special one had a black label. (I bet you know where this is going.) Special and Extra Special Old Highland was a bit of a mouthful, so customers simply called them “red label” and “black label” respectively. Johnnie Walker formally adopted the names in 1909.
Cardhu is one of Diageo’s best-selling single malts. A couple decades ago, its demand exceeded supply. What to do?
“I know, let’s just make Cardhu a blend.”
“I dunno. People who buy single malts aren’t usually into blends.”
“What if we called it a pure malt?”
“Isn’t pure malt just another word for blend?”
“Wouldn’t that be deceptive?”
“Let’s do it!”
Cardhu 12 pure malt was a blend of Cardhu and Glendullan, a worker bee malt owned by Diageo. What made going with Glendullan especially genius (in an underhanded way) is that it, like Cardhu, is located in Moray (Morayshire).
The Cardhu 12 single malt bottle:
Cardhu Distillery, Morayshire, Scotland
The Cardhu 12 pure malt bottle:
Speyside Malt, Morayshire, Scotland
Pretty sneaky. The colour scheme, font, bottle shape, and abv. were exactly the same. Unless you had the single and pure malt side-by-side, each one could easily pass for the other. The industry wasn’t impressed. William Grant & Sons, the same company that distilled its first drop of whisky on Cardhu’s old stills, publicly condemned the move.
“Small world hey?”
“That’s the whole point of this piece, remember? Kevin Bacon? I don’t write these things overnight you know!”
Grant’s beef was a valid one. Single malts are special. One distillery, one set of stills. Pure malt is nothing more than crafty wordplay. You don’t want to say blend, so you replace single with pure and hope no one notices. Distilleries bouncing from single to pure whenever stocks run low is disingenuous, and not fair to the customer. The UK government thought so too, eventually. In 2009, legislation was passed banning the use of the term “pure malt.”
Cardhu 12 is fine, I guess. It’s 40%, chill filtered, and coloured to look extra flavourful. It’s made to appeal to the casual, non-discerning drinker. The kind of person who doesn’t care if their whisky is a pure or single malt. The kind of person who thinks a good whisky is a smooth whisky. The kind of person who’d never take time out of their day to read my work (much obliged by the way). Cardhu 12 is made to sell, sell, sell, just not to someone like you.