Meet the couple behind the Cardrona Distillery deep in the hills of Otago's Cardrona Valley
Words: Jai Breitnauer
In 2011, Desiree Whitaker surveyed her dairy farm in South Canterbury, and realised something was missing. Her marriage had recently ended and she suddenly felt able to pursue new dreams. “I did a lot of soul searching,” Desiree says. “I’d always wanted to make something that ended up in someone’s hands, something artisan,” she says. “I brainstormed all sorts of ideas, but I kept coming back to spirits.” Having managed a bar in London’s Chelsea when she was 21, and taken a trip around the distilleries of Scotland, Desiree had always had a passion for good quality spirits. She loved the idea of making those spirits herself. “I was lucky to have a great farm manager that gave me the time to do market research, and travel overseas to learn the art and science of distilling, to really find out what is involved in running this sort of business.” After two and a half years of research, the passion for the project was still there, so she sold the farm and moved to Wanaka, where she’d spent long summers as a child at her grandparents’ bach. “It felt like the right place, it was where I wanted to be,” she says.
Love at First Sight
While Desiree searched for a piece of land to fall in love with, Ash Whitaker, who had also found himself single and in need of a new project, moved to Wanaka from Christchurch to start a transport business. An ex-transport manager and Silver Fern Farms executive, he was keen to run his own business. “When I rolled up with my second-hand truck, people laughed. But within a year I had several new vehicles on the road and the business was turning a healthy profit.” Ash was happy with his success, and his new life in Wanaka. Then one night in October 2014, he was having dinner at Lake Bar when he noticed a young woman and struck up a conversation.
“It was Desiree, she was taking her Aunt out for a drink,” says Ash. “As soon as she told me her name I knew who she was. Wanaka is a small place and word of her project had got around. It was love at first sight,” smiles Desiree, who notes that they had many things in common, including their entrepreneurial spirit and willingness to take calculated risks. Within weeks they had decided to get married. “But Desiree made it clear that part of our relationship was me being involved in the distillery business,” says Ash. “This was her dream, but I didn’t hesitate. I sold my business straight away.”
“Ash did have one condition though,” Desiree smiles. “We had to make a gin.”
Old Roots for New Beginnings
Ash and Desiree Whitaker tied the knot on New Year’s day 2015, and the first sod was turned on their distillery build on January 5th. While the business has become a real family affair, with Desiree’s parents and sister involved in the company (and their two young children ever present), it had been hard work getting to the starting point. “It had taken me six months just to find a suitable site,” says Desiree. “The gold mining history of the area, while rich and interesting, meant that much of the ground was very unstable.” Once she had a site, Desiree had to work through a year of hurdles to get resource consent. As the distillery is in an area earmarked as being of ‘outstanding natural beauty’, the district council wanted to make sure the imposing stone buildings being proposed wouldn’t impact negatively. Thankfully, the local community were very supportive of the project.
“We put our first barrel of whisky down on November 5th, and opened our doors to the public on December 18th 2015,” says Ash. “We didn’t just want to make spirits. We wanted to be a destination. Cardrona is close to Queenstown airport and on a main tourist route. We want people to come and enjoy a tour of the distillery, taste our spirits, and feel like they have some ownership, that they are an extended part of our Cardrona family.” Ash says there is no other distillery in New Zealand that offers tours. They also have a café and a cocktail bar and they’re currently building a museum that will host an exhibition about local gold mining history. “It’s our way of giving something back, and of being connected to the land.”
The spirit laid down in 2015 is earmarked to be a Speyside-style whisky, and will be available in 2025. It has already caused a stir among Kiwi whisky enthusiasts both here and abroad, and Ash says they’ve pre-sold a number of barrels. While they are waiting for their whisky to come of age, they’re focussing on their white spirits. “Our vodka, The Reid, is this beautiful, fresh and clean spirit, made from the alpine water we draw from our own underground spring, our authentic distilling malt and yeast,” says Ash. “It’s distilled seven times, once in the copper still made for us by Forsythe’s in Scotland, and then six times though our Jacob Carl column still.” Ash notes that while a key ingredient of good spirits is great water, not many vodkas are made from malt, giving theirs a distinctive biscuit aroma on the nose with hints of banana and caramel on the palate.
To make their gin, The Source, the Whitakers take some of their pure spirit and distil it for an eighth time with a selection of botanicals including juniper, coriander, angelica root, lemon and orange zest and rosehips, which give it a distinctive local flavour. “Those rosehips grow behind the distillery, and were brought to the valley by the Chinese who came here for the gold rush,” says Ash. “It’s a great connection to the land, and to the history of Cardrona.” This gin, made almost as an afterthought on Ash’s bequest, has won them their first two gold medals, one at the New York World Wine and Spirits competition, and one at the Top 50 Gins Awards, also in New York. Finally, there is Rose Rabbit, their orange liqueur made by soaking un-aged single malt spirit with oranges from sunny Gisborne. Ash says it’s great over ice, in a cocktail or poured on ice cream. “We’re working on developing other products,” says Ash. “But we don’t want a huge portfolio, just a tight knit family of good quality, hand-crafted spirits.”
Cardrona Distillery spirits: The Reid vodka RRP $109.99; The Source gin RRP $119.99; Rose Rabbit orange liqueur $129.99.