As the biggest Scotch whiskey company, Diageo has lots of distilleries and brands to juggle. And when one country (like Spain) falls head over heels for a single malt (like Cardhu), the ripples are felt internationally. So for some time, Cardhu, one of the iconic single malt Scotch whiskies that helped spur growth of the category in the 1980s in the United States, was not available here. But it’s back, and we talked with Cardhu’s master distiller Andy Cant as well as Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo, about the brand, Scotch trends and the recent Scotch jam at the Mount Vernon Distillery.
Mix: Cardhu fans no longer have to travel to get their favorite. Why is it more available now in the United States, and what’s going on with the brand?
Andy Cant: Last year we launched a 15 year old and 18 year old Cardhu, mostly in France and Spain. Spain still is a very big market for us, but in some respects its economy’s softening has made it easier to bring more to the United States. Cardhu is a style you’d call light, floral and fruity, typical of a light Speyside. It’s a very good introductory whiskey: quite gentle to start with but not a one-trick horse. When you add a little water and it starts to open up, you get aromas and flavors of pears, green grass and light floral and fruit notes. It’s a definite favorite of mine, funnily enough.
Andy Cant, Cardhu master distiller.
Nick Morgan: Those older whiskies are not currently available in the United States, as they were saved for the countries where it’s most popular. Cardhu is one of the most important brands in France for instance, whether the 15 and 18 or the Cask Reserve, so having it here depends on how the market progresses.
Mix: How do you find a way to get Cardhu back in the minds of American consumers, now that so many single malts are available here?
Morgan: I think there are a number of things that with Cardhu we have a real advantage. There are lots of people like you and me who have been around long enough to remember Cardhu when it was in the market. Then there’s not just the taste as Andy described, but its unique packaging as well. The bottle shape is one of the things that gets people talking about it, even though we have had the bottle since around 1982, it still sets Cardhu apart from whiskies. The bottle is something people are drawn to.
Mix: Do you see much place for single malts in cocktails?
Morgan: At the moment, in the London bar scene there are small bars cropping up all over the place serving some astonishingly appetizing or confusing cocktails. A lot of them are using whiskies and even single malts, which is an even newer thing. Some single malt brands are making a real play in that East London cocktail world. Because these are cocktail bars talking to younger and more broadminded consumers, I think all those rules that people have in their head about what single malt can and cannot be used for are being chipped away. However in France or Germany or northern Europe, they just won’t have it; the idea is ingrained to have single malt with no water, no ice, and one should just sit and enjoy. I think that’s a shame because it makes the whiskies less approachable and less enjoyable to a broader audience, really. I think the fact that people are becoming more open to drinks with stronger and a more diverse range of flavors in them really opens the doors for Scotch whiskey. People in those bars are really open to drinking Scotch whiskey, and we have a chance to talk about Scotch whiskey in a way that focuses in on flavor. While it’s great to talk with people about the complexity of production and those things, many people just want to just know what it tastes like and how to drink it.
Nick Morgan, head of whisky outreach at Diageo.
Mix: You’ve come to the United States with other Scotch whisky master distillers to work on the Mount Vernon Scotch project. How did that go?
Cant: We started distillation, which was a real buzz for someone in distillation as long as I have been, because you had to sort of unlearn what you knew. Take Cardhu as an example: We were working how they may well have distilled back in 1811 when it was a farm distillery. We imported Scottish malt, and beforehand we spoke with [George Washington Distillery master distiller] Dave Pickerell back and forth on the phone about the kind of mashing and fermentation we would want to do. When we arrived, we took the wash and that’s when the fun started. Back in Scotland, we would have pumped it back into the still but down there it was all hands and buckets and spilling it all over ourselves. It was really good fun. There are five stills there, all different shapes and sizes, characters and idiosyncrasies, and once we started distilling, it was all very much “put your finger underneath the still and taste it.” Finally, it was recognizable as single malt Scotch that will be available in a limited capacity in three years.
Mix: Anything else in terms of Scotch whiskey and the United States that gives you encouragement these days?
Morgan: I’m encouraged and curious about the latest numbers from The Scotch Malt Whisky Society about annual exports in 2010-11 showing that Scotch malt whisky is as a whole in significant growth everywhere and showed America far more vibrant than was expected. Great news, and I’m intrigued about where that’s coming from and what’s going on. It leads us back to the earlier cocktail conversation. And about the influence about a certain TV program about the drinking of cocktails and whiskey, so I wonder if that might be something we could loosely refer to as the "‘Mad Men’ effect.” I have a 27-year-old daughter, born in Scotland and who has drunk whisky, but when she suddenly came home to me and told me how cool whiskies were because of this TV program, even I had to raise an eyebrow and start listening.