Cardhu is one of the world’s most popular single malt Scotches, but it has long been unavailable in the U.S. Now it’s back, so it seemed a good time to check in on the world of on-premise whiskey with Steve Beal, Master of Whisky for Diageo North America, who conducts tastings, seminars, dinners, educational courses, and private events on behalf of Diageo’s whisky portfolio. Prior to becoming a Master of Whisky, Beal studied the culinary arts in Paris. Today he is highly respected throughout the spirits world, including serving as a judge at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
NCB Mix: Cardhu has been unavailable in the U.S. for so long that younger Scotch fans may not have experienced it. Tell me why it left, and why it's back?
Steven Beal: A very popular single malt in the U.S. when single malts began catching on from the mid-80s, Cardhu has always been popular in France and Spain and other European countries. It has always been a single malt at the heart of the Johnnie Walker blended whiskies, which have continued to grow enormously — very much bucking the trend among blended Scotches. Between its own popularity and the demand placed on it by Johnnie Walker, demand quickly began outstripping supply and Cardhu needed to be allocated. So in order to maintain continuity, the brand was withdrawn from several countries in 2004, which meant a temporary absence from the American market lasting four to five years until supplies began to replenish.
NCB Mix: What are the qualities of Cardhu that set it off from other Speysides?
Beal: Cardhu is a perfectly sublime, well-balanced single malt with hints of fruit, pastry, nuts, spices and a tiny touch of smoke. It fits within the general profile for many Speyside whiskies but is much more complex and multidimensional. That was one of the reasons the Walker family coveted it for their blends as far back as the mid-1800s and why they acquired it in 1893 — ensuring a consistent supply. It was embraced by whisky connoisseurs from the very beginning. Cardhu is a small distillery, as Speysides go. At Cardhu they don't allow themselves to be hurried and they have never changed their style to adapt to market trends.
NCB Mix: It also plays an important role in blending Johnnie Walker Black, yes?
Beal: Johnnie Walker master blenders work from a palate of as many as 47 single malts and grain whiskies. Currently, Diageo produces 29 whiskies in Scotland — over one-third of all the single malts. Cardhu was the first distillery Johnnie Walker acquired in 1893 – it was an extremely popular whisky at the time. Cardhu has been part and parcel of the blends, particularly Black Label, since the beginning. The Cardhu style and elegant, sweet complexity are key elements in the blends.
NCB Mix: What are you and the other folks at Diageo seeing in terms of on-premise demand for Scotch whisky?
Beal: In the last decade, there has been a huge growth. I have seen a terrific resurgence in demand for all brown spirits, the rebirth of brown-spirit based cocktails – but there’s particular interest in both blended Scotch and single malts. The growth in the markets in which I work has been in double and triple digits for the last five years. And despite the downturn in the economy, the growth of premium brands and single malts has been enormous and gives me no indication of anything but more to come.
NCB Mix: In Scotland and England, Scotch whisky cocktails are fairly common in style bars, but not here. Have you given much thought to trying to change that here?
Beal: It has actually already happened. I am on the board of examiners and a founder of the Master Mixology accreditation program of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, and the interest in whisk(e)y-based cocktails is leading the revolution. Scotch is already playing a very important part in that.
NCB Mix: Are there other surprises for American Scotch whisky lovers on the way from Diageo, which has so many distilleries in its portfolio, some of which we never see?
Beal: This fall the Classic Malts Selection will introduce 13 exquisite new single malt whiskies. Expressions will include Lagavulin 12, Cragganmore 21, Talisker 30, Glen Spey 21, Auchroisk 20 and Glenkinchie 20.
NCB Mix: If you have one, what's you favorite cocktail using whisky? If not, how do you prefer your dram served and with what?
Beal: My go-to is and has always been Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks. I take my single malts with a splash of water. As cocktails go, I love the classics. In some circles, a perfect Rob Roy (the Scotch Manhattan) is called “Beal's Cocktail.”