Desiree Reid, Cardrona Distillery, New Zealand – Interview

Hello everyone

I was offered an interview with Desiree Reid, founder of New Zealand‘s Cardrona Distillery so, in a nod to International Women‘s Day, we went ahead and set it up. It‘s always good to meet enterprising and interesting women in the whisky world. I‘m glad to say there are more of them than some people might think and there are also much larger numbers drinking whisky than some expect. Timing wise, stuff intervened to prevent me from uploading on International Women‘s Day. As Robert Burns once said, „The best laid plans o‘ mice and men gang aft agley“. I wonder what Google translate would make of that one.

We did also talk about Islay distilleries and other places and matters but the purpose of this chat was to find out more about Desiree, what led her to this work and learn more about the distillery too.

Where were you born and where did you grow up? What was it like there?

I was born in an Otago town called Mosgiel. It‘s known as the Hollywood of New Zealand as it has a Hollywood-type sign saying Mosgiel but that‘s about the beginning and the end of the similarity.  We lived there till I was 3 when my parents moved about 300km north to Canterbury Plains in New Zealand where they bought their first farm. Growing up on a farm was a great childhood, learnt a lot, worked hard and played. It was wonderful. [Pic here taken from Wikipedia.]

You‘re from a farming background. Did you take over the farm from your parents?

No, I was first generation myself. I started from scratch and bought my own farm. I was the youngest ever elected representative on New Zealand‘s largest company called Fonterra, the world‘s largest exporter of dairy products. I was Chair of Governance and Ethics on the shareholders‘ council, one of four women on that – plus 32 men so 36 in total – and one of two in charge of assuring the independence of the international federation which happened twice a year so it meant that I had access to the 10 year plans of New Zealand‘s largest company. It was fortuitous in being in the right place at the right time and fortuitous placement into business quite early in life.

I read you were initially then interested in making perfume. Is that right as some of your white spirit packaging looks like it‘s influenced by perfume bottles?

No, not quite. It was one of my long lists that I was researching. I wanted to make a change from farming. Fonterra‘s products are skimmed milk powder, milk powder and bulk cheese which they do a very good job of but I wanted to make something that ended up in people‘s hands, myself. So I had lists of ideas and short lists and scrapbooks, everything from buffalo mozzarella to fresh water crayfish. Hundreds of ideas. Perfume was one of those which made it to a shortlist. Of course, most of what is in a bottle of perfume is alcohol and I needed to understand how to make the alcohol. The more I learned, the more the perfume idea fell away and alcohol, in particular whisky, came to the fore.

So those studies took you towards whisky – or spirits.

Yes. I started research in 2011 and in May 2013 I made the decision to sell my farm and move to Central Otago, which is the Lake District of New Zealand and a major tourist area, a beautiful area and then to find the site at Cardrona. It took me 6 months after moving to Wanaka to find the site and another whole year to get the consents to build here. It‘s classed as outstanding natural landscape and nationally protected. Our buildings here are substantial – made from local stone which is unusual in New Zealand. I know it‘s common in the UK to have beautiful old stone buildings but we don‘t have that ancient history.

You do have plenty of ancient stone though, it‘s there in the ground to be dug out. Why Cardrona – the water, barley growing, facilities, the spectacular views?

It‘s the full range of those elements. We have water and the pristine environment here [pic on left is from Cardrona’s website] so it‘s a wonderful place for making whisky. Even though it looks similar to Scotland, it‘s quite a different environment to distil and mature whisky in. We‘re 600 metres above sea level here which changes the way the spirit acts inside the stills as it‘s being distilled and also the way the „angels“ interact with the casks. It changes – lowers – the boiling point of the alcohol and on top of that we have 0% humidity unless it‘s raining but it doesn‘t rain very much – 600mm a year and so it then changes the way the angels interact with the spirit when it‘s in cask. The oak acts like a filter and the two sides of the filter try to equalise so if you‘ve got no humidity, no water in the atmosphere around the cask, it‘s more water that will pass through the cask for the angels than alcohol [presumably more angels gathering over Scotland then!]. In Scotland it‘s more alcohol that passes through the oak and what that means here is that it‘s raising the abv inside the casks rather than lowering it.

[It is indeed and that‘s something that was explained to me on a visit to Maker‘s Mark by the legendary Dave Pickerell, an ex-colleague of mine and with whom Desiree studied the process later on after he‘d left Maker‘s Mark.]

I went to Kentucky to Starlight Distillery and did a week‘s course there and then Dave Pickerell came here to Cardrona to visit after the distillery was built. He had only a two day window including his flights so sadly he was in the air as much as he was on the ground. He‘d left Maker‘s Mark to start the craft movement by then and was involved with Whistle Pig and Hillrock and mentored me from the US as well. A wonderful man and an incredible way of explaining quite complicated concepts in a simple way that people could grasp. I met Dave originally at an American Distillers Institute conference. He‘d stepped in to present for the owner of Hillrock who couldn‘t be there. I thought he must be doing a presentation of his own so I scoured the programme and went to that. He was outstanding and a little later helped to fund and run a course so I put my hand up to attend that.

You spent some time in Scotland too…

Yes, I spent months in Scotland visiting many, many, many, MANY distilleries and multiple times too! Once I‘d found the land and got permission to build, I discovered that the plans my architect had designed for me were not in keeping with my budget but were in keeping with my dream and I decided to take, for the first time in my life, investment from my parents which I was incredibly lucky to have. As part of that, they and I and the architect travelled back to Scotland so they could get into what was in my mind‘s eye.

I thought this was interesting as, from one side the distillery looks like a Scottish stone building yet from the other side when you see the lower Reception roof it looks more American.

In general the layout is based on Woodford Reserve which was the first one I‘d been into so obviously Kentucky rather than Scotland. Everything except maturation is in the same building but the entrance to ours is in the end rather than the side but very loosely it‘s much the same. [ Pic here taken from]

I asked, because of my own marketing background, if Desiree had been to Laphroaig and The Glendronach.

Yes, I‘ve been to both and on Speyside there has been Strathisla plus many more. Is the Dewar in your name anything to do with Dewar‘s Whisky?

I had to say at this point that, sadly, it isn‘t.

I was told you had issues importing and installing stills. Was that right?

No, we had a lovely experience. Forsyth‘s did a great job for us. We have Scottish stills from Forsyth‘s for the whisky and a German column still for the white spirits. On the day the wash still was being lowered in, an endangered New Zealand falcon came down and sat on the neck of the still. It was spotted by a local journalist, a writer for the Otago Daily Times. It sat there till the still was in and often comes back and sits on the end of our first warehouse. We consider he‘s guarding the distillery for us.

Certainly sounds like a lucky charm.

I thought Desiree had answered on place and climate but she had more to say on the latter.

It can look like Scotland but our climate here is a hugely different variable. At night in winter we can be as low as -15C and as much as 40C during the day in summer. An enormous temperature swing from summer to winter. That has a big influence on the way the spirit is interacting with the wood. Angels‘ share is higher than in Scotland – about 3.5% [way higher than here!]. That‘s what we‘ve been measuring to date and I would have assumed it would be much higher given all the elements already described.

Sustainability seems important – is your thermal wool insulation NZ sheep wool?

It‘s a naturally derived, commercially available insulation. Heating our buildings, the visitor centre and restaurant space, well, the distillery generates a lot of hot water so we use that to heat the slab of the buildings which is a nice use of energy. Our energy use is certified 100% renewable. Our draff goes a very short distance to the next door neighbour who sold me the land originally. [Seems it‘s deer enjoying the draff benefits.]

Also, your building looks like an old stone one but isn‘t and you‘ve mentioned the inspiration there.

Yes, we needed to settle easily into the landscape. In the early days we had visitors commenting, „Isn‘t it nice what they‘ve done with those old buildings!“ We had a very clever architect, Sarah Scott. She‘s 70 now and was inducted as a Fellow into the New Zealand Institute of Architecture about 10 years ago in honour of the work she‘s done, particularly in this region.

I wondered how easy it is for women to work in whisky in New Zealand given recent complaints here further west about how women in whisky have been regarded as employees and consumers (sexism, misogyny) over the years, though it‘s not something I ever encountered myself. Women actually making and blending the whisky were fairly rare only 20 years ago despite the fact that women ran distilleries back in the 19th century but, fortunately, we have lots of them now and Desiree has a female distilling team.

I‘ve had the opposite experience on my journey, from people like Dave Pickerell who came alongside and coached me from afar; the people from Forsyth‘s who took me under their wing and guided me through how to design a distillery and put it together. I guess if anyone was sexist, I didn‘t notice as they weren‘t going to help me get to my goal. Whatever you focus on is what you get in life. They might have been there but I wasn‘t interested as I was too busy trying to find the people who would help me build the distillery. I don‘t think it matters what gender you are, there will always be nay sayers in the way of a big dream. You can choose to become fixated on that or you can roll up your sleeves and make it happen.

I love this lady‘s attitude.

There are a few women distillers in NZ but we are the largest, though only a pipsqueak, tiny [in comparison with more established whisky distilling nations] and the most commercial. There are some wonderful spirits – and beautifully made – coming out of New Zealand but if we‘re the largest with only a 2,000 litre wash still, then the others are still a micro industry here.

I wondered if there was much Cardrona here in the UK.

We were self-distributing. We put a small team into the UK just before Covid and we‘ve recently been purchased by International Beverage, a subsidiary of ThaiBev. Our UK team has been taken into the International Beverage family so there will be more of it, I expect. It‘s in all those places you‘d expect to find it – The Whisky Exchange, Berry Brothers, The Whisky Shop and so on.

Is there anything you do differently from Scotland? Are there whisky laws and are they less restricting?

We have regulations that are set by our industry body but that‘s discretionary, not binding. However, we hold ourselves to Scottish standards. We pride ourselves on making our whisky well and properly and what makes us different and interesting is the more extreme environment where we‘re distilling and maturing our whisky.

Is NZ whisky a protected category? Do you have anything like the Scotch Whisky Association or are there plans to do that?

No, but slowly and surely. We have that industry body where our handful of distillers have come together but it takes time to lobby government to create change like that. It‘s a choice between running businesses and driving standards but I guess where you‘re getting to is it exposes the industry to risk if it‘s not entrenched in law.

Yes, protecting yourself from people or companies in other countries claiming things they‘re not entitled to. Now a bit more about you. What are your interests outside of work, if you even get time?

Work is a very, very big interest! It fulfils me deeply. I have two children, Richie, an 8 year old who was born the year the spirit first flowed and a wee girl whose name is Reid who is 6, so swimming with them and playing is my outside of work job – family time.

Do you travel as a brand ambassador and do you like speaking to audiences?

I do speak to audiences but we are lucky to have people who are very gifted at those types of roles – of sales and being a brand ambassador so I‘ve been fortunate in having the right people join the business to pin their hopes and dreams on to Cardrona and drive it forward too. [I would say it‘s maybe not all good fortune; more that Desiree has made good choices when hiring people.]

You were, until recently, a family-owned company. Who else from the family works there with you?

My father works on maintenance and pottering round the distillery with casks. He enjoys working with our master distiller, Sarah Elsom. He turns 70 this year so he‘s enjoying his „not retirement“ retirement and my sister also works here as one of Sarah‘s distillers. I‘m grateful to IB and ThaiBev that they‘ve allowed that family element to continue.

Favourite places to travel for a) work and b) leisure?

I really enjoy going back to Scotland. It feels like home when I go up there, particularly into the Speyside area. It‘s dear to my heart. [Just as a coincidence, Cardrona is also village in the Scottish Borders and Mossgiel, as we spell it here, is in Ayrshire.]

Then, with family, I prefer to keep closer to home so either staycations to be with my children or away with them somewhere close though we might go out to the Pacific islands as they‘re quite close to New Zealand – about a two hour flight.

What do you like most and least about your job? I‘m not sure you have a „least“.

I don‘t think there‘s a least either. Most? It was a very big decision to sell my farm and move to Wanaka with nobody here as support network. So, firstly, going on to see what has been built with a lot of people making this dream be a dream; the development of this business as it‘s gone from opening the doors on that first day and having some spirits to sell. Those were the vodka and gin while the whisky was maturing. Then there’s winning awards. Our 3 year old was named as one of the top 50 whiskies ever reviewed by Whisky Magazine and we‘ve recently won two categories at the World Whisky Awards with The Falcon – Best Single Malt 12 Years & Under and Best Small Batch Single Malt 12 Years & Under which put us into the shortlist for the main award and one day we intend to win that. There were a number of gold medals awarded to New Zealand distilleries this last year, the largest ever number. Shows that we may be a fledgling industry but are turning out some fantastic whiskies.

My day changes from minute to minute so I guess steering the ship is a favourite. I work with some very good people whether it‘s the distilling or where we do our own bottling/labelling/packaging. They are an incredible team who make sure everything is just perfect to be received into the customer‘s hands. Then there‘s our front of house team who welcome people at the Cellar Door. We have 80,000 visitors a year [that‘s an astounding number] and they are a highly talented and very important team. The visitors are from all over the world [I hope to be one of them one day] and we have a territory manager sales team out on the road, spreading the word of Cardrona throughout New Zealand. We also have a global brand ambassador who goes back and forwards a lot, particularly to the United States. So you can see we have a lot of different facets of the business. It‘s my job to keep everybody pushing in the right direction but they‘re all fantastic anyway.

So steering the ship and growing the business is what you get a buzz from.

Yes, but also the whisky – seeing how it‘s maturing and how it‘s being tasted around the whisky world. People who know a lot about whisky are enjoying it.

Any unfulfilled ambitions in a) work and b) personally?

To win World Whisky of the Year! Personally? I‘m pretty fulfilled with my young family. You have to take time to smell the roses and the roses are particularly sweet with them.

Anything new coming soon that you can tell us about?

We‘ll have whisky casks turning 10 years of age in November 2025 so we‘ll be releasing that in 2026 which is a wonderful milestone. In some ways the last decade feels like a century and in many ways has passed in the blink of an eye.

Definitely something to look forward to. I love that you‘re keen to promote cocktails using your products and have a page devoted to those on your website. Who creates those?

We were lucky enough to draw Joey Durana down here about two and a half years ago. He runs our Cellar Door and is one of New Zealand‘s most accomplished mixologists. He worked for 4 years at New Zealand‘s best cocktail bar, a place called Caretaker in Auckland and he took over the Cellar Door about a year ago. He‘s doing an outstanding job. [See . Pic on left taken from the Cardrona website Cocktails page.]

If stuck on a desert island which one whisky would you want with you? Doesn‘t have to be one of your own.

But I would take The Falcon as the one I have with me because it‘s delicious!

Before we finished I did ask Desiree whether she produces or is interested in producing a peated version but the answer is no. „There‘s always a time and a place for a peated whisky but my preference, my go to, is always unpeated.“

We closed the chat there and I am indeed grateful to Desiree for taking time early in the morning in NZ to tell us about herself and Cardrona. She is a very focused, determined and charming lady who has clearly surrounded herself with good people and who strives for perfection. Doubtless Cardrona will enjoy further success under the International Beverage umbrella and I have no doubt Desiree will win that coveted World Whisky award.

I‘ve previously tasted – and enjoyed – Cardrona‘s 7 Year Old Single Cask Full Flight Sherry. Since we spoke I have acquired a sample of The Falcon which I will nose/taste and include in my end of March column with one or two other whiskies. Till end of this month, happy dramming.





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