Cardrona Distillery.

New Zealand’s highest mountain pass hides one of the rarest drams in the world, made by the Cardrona Distillery

“We live to make great single malt whisky,” says Desiree Whitaker, standing in the middle of the Cardrona Valley. Flanked by two ancient mountain ranges, the valley rises steeply to the hairpin bends of the Crown Range Road. This area of outstanding natural beauty was the inspiration for the native New Zealander’s pursuit of whisky excellence. Cardrona is one of the world’s rarest must-haves in a whisky collection, and is hard to get.

Scored as one of the best 50 drams ever reviewed by Whisky Magazine, Cardrona’s philosophy is to make things properly. “Cardrona produces a singularly tiny amount of malt spirit each year, just a barrel a day,” says Desiree. “Our sole focus is to make great whisky, with the very best ingredients and craftsmanship. In 50 years Cardrona will remain an artisan distillery dedicated to crafting one of the most sought-after malts in the world, from one of the world’s most pristine environments.”

The odyssey of building the icon of New Zealand’s single malt took years of research and training. Desiree spent many years travelling the world’s great whisky houses, learning from some of the world’s most revered master distillers. Desiree then brought her expertise home to the remote Cardrona Valley, and set about building her vision for New Zealand malt.

The distillery was designed by the internationally recognized local architect, Sarah Scott, who took on the project out of love for the untouched valley. Solid schist walls form the home to two glorious bespoke copper pot stills, handmade for Cardrona by the world’s foremost coppersmiths, Forsyths of Rothes, Scotland. “Every distillery has a unique and identifiable character and Cardrona’s character is extraordinary,” says Desiree.

“A whisky’s character is a result of the distillery. Every nuance, every small decision and design moment builds the character that altogether is recognizable as a specific whisky. Whisky is like a fine oil painting, built up layer upon layer upon layer.”

With whisky the character starts with the water, the malt variety and the grind of the mill. It is then added to with the mash tun design, the yeast, and construction of the washbacks. Finally, the character is cemented with length of ferment, the shape of the copper pot stills, and the specific cut points at the spirit safe. “A great whisky requires great ingredients, equipment, and, above all, experience,” says Desiree. She attributes Cardrona’s success to its Master Distiller, Sarah Elsom, whose small team of distillers is dedicated to crafting an extraordinary dram. “Their attention to detail and quality is the secret behind Cardrona’s excellence.”

Sarah’s team capture the distillery character. The spirit is laid to rest in seasoned oak casks, sourced from ex-Oloroso sherry butts from the south of Spain, ex-bourbon barrels from Kentucky, and ex-Pinot Noir casks from Central Otago in New Zealand. The spirit is aged into whisky and then carefully selected and married together, or, on occasion, released as a single-cask expression.

“The character is magnificent,” says Desiree. A weighted creamy spirit on the palate offering notes of honey, vanilla and spice, and then a layering of the seasoned oak, bringing nuances of roasted stone fruit and buttered almonds. All of Cardrona’s bottlings are released at cask strength, which is a signature of this iconic distillery. Cardrona looks idyllic in its surroundings, perched on the foot of South Island’s most impressive alpine roads. One of the world’s most legendary drives has an added purpose – to secure a rare gem of the whisky world.