The woman behind New Zealand's new artisan whisky

Meet the woman behind New Zealand’s newest artisan whisky distillery.

New Zealand’s only purpose-built artisan whisky distillery near Wanaka in the South Island is the result of one woman’s dream to bring something unique to her homeland. And she’s delivering – in barrels.

New Zealand’s only purpose-built artisan whisky distillery is in the Cardrona Valley between Queenstown and Wanaka. The spectacular drive across the Crown Range Road takes you past some of New Zealand’s destination ski fields, through an historic gold mining area to a piece of land that became Desiree Whitaker’s dream.

Desiree leads a team of women turning pure alpine water into craft vodka, orange liqueur, gin and single-malt whisky.

It was managing a bar in in London’s Chelsea district that kickstarted Desiree’s love of whisky. “It was the shapes of the bottles and the colour of the liquid that first attracted me,” she says. “I’d come from a home that was as teetotal as you could get but Mum visited me [in England] for my birthday and we travelled to Scotland – we went to the Edradour Distillery and I was hooked.”

Returning home to New Zealand, she graduated with a business degree, started share-milking and eventually bought her own farm. Desiree was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship to travel the world for six months researching opportunities for New Zealand farming. When she returned home, she found herself searching for a new adventure. “I did lots and lots of brainstorming. I made lists of hundreds of different ideas, researched them, and scrapped them all, and started over. I ended up looking into spirit alcohol.

“I went to one of the first courses on how to make vodka in the United States. I naively thought we would learn how to mash, ferment and distil, but it amazed me that all anyone really did was buy bulk ethanol, add water and call it ‘craft vodka’. That made me feel quite angry. I felt deceived as a vodka drinker.” 

That was when Desiree decided to bring the craft back into distilling and to make something unique in her homeland. After years of research, she sold the farm, moved to Central Otago and began a hunt for the perfect piece of land to build her distillery dream. A series of serendipitous tip-offs saw her lunching in the Cardrona Hotel –a two-minute drive from what has since become the site of her distillery. 

“Someone had told me I needed to look for a man called John Lee but I didn’t have his contact details,” she says. “I bought a bowl of soup at the hotel restaurant and sat by myself. An older man was at the table next to me with his coffee and a newspaper. We chatted a while and he asked if he could sit with me because he was hard of hearing. I ended up telling him I was looking for a perfect piece of land for a distillery and we swapped business cards.”

The man turned out to be John Lee.

For six months, he helped her search for the right distillery site. In the end, the resulting property was a part of his daughter’s country station. The Cardrona Distillery buildings are clad in local stone, in keeping with the district’s designation as an area of outstanding natural landscape.

The stills are crafted by Richard Forsyth, a fourth-generation coppersmith and a member of Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame.

In the majority female team, the distillery manager is scientist Jose Cranfield, who learned her craft from the former distillery manager of Bowmore, Scotland. The rest of the team is made up of two qualified wine-makers, as well as a herbalist. 

Visitors are taken on a 90-minute tour through the distillery’s rose garden, distillery, grain storage area and tasting room where they see the process of mashing and making.

The water comes from a natural source: Alvin’s Well, named after Desiree’s father. “He may once have been a teetotaller but he now enjoys a dram - now and then,” Desiree says.

“All the spirits start in the same way through the milling, mashing and fermentation but once we are in the still house, it's fascinating. We have Scottish craftsmanship, German engineering and Kiwi ingenuity. We make the only truly handcrafted vodka in New Zealand, The Reid. 

“We make an orange liqueur using macerated orange peel from Gisborne. We call it The Rose Rabbit, it’s named after the valley’s two biggest colonists - Chinese gold miners brought roses with them and the valley is overrun with rabbits.”

Their signature whisky will be called The Cardrona but visitors will have to wait for that because Desiree plans on releasing a 10-year, 15-year, 18-year and 21-year-old drop.

Around 70 per cent of the flavour of whisky comes from the type of cask it sits in. Desiree sourced wonderful ex-Bourbon barrels from the United States. The sherry butts Desiree wanted proved to be remarkably elusive: fortunately, she had another serendipitous moment when she contacted an old school friend who had become a winemaker. The friend’s contacts led Desiree to the perfect ex-sherry butts from the south of Spain.

The drive to the distillery from either Wanaka or Queenstown leads you through stunning landscapes, no matter the season. In autumn, the trees run gold, orange and red. As winter arrives, snow caps the mountain range and skiers will find themselves drawn to the Cardrona ski field. In summer, stone fruit drops from the trees and there are plenty of nearby wineries showcasing Otago’s signature pinot noir speciality. 

Open to the public since December 2015, The Cardrona Distillery is the realisation of one woman’s dream.

Travel Tips

Queenstown has both a domestic and international airport. Hire a car and drive for about 45 minutes to 2125 Cardrona Valley Road, between Wanaka and Queenstown. It’s directly opposite the entrance to Cardrona Skifield – look out for the “bra fence”: you’ll know it when you see it. The Cardrona Distillery is open daily 9:30am to 5pm. Tours leave on the hour from 10am, last tour at 3pm and take between 75 and 90 minutes. (Closed on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Good Friday and Easter Sunday.)

What's Nearby

While it is a popular with skiers, Wanaka (about 20 minutes’ drive away) has year-round appeal with an expansive lake perfect for water activities, award-winning wineries and a burgeoning café culture.  The alpine village of Queenstown (less than an hour’s drive) known for its high-adrenaline activities in a stunning mountain setting, is just over an hour’s drive away from Wanaka.