Saturday, July 28, 2012

Review: Cardhu 12 year old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

My first encounter with Cardhu was back in the mid-1980's.  College days. I had two friends, Keith and Jeff, who were huge fans of this malt.  While we played cards (hearts) on Saturday afternoons in Jeff's bright second floor apartment with buttery beams of sunlight pouring through huge windows of the old Victorian house, Soft Cell's rendition of Tainted Love, Def Leppard  and various Depeche Mode tunes (not my ideal choice) played accompaniment to my green bottles of Moosehead beer and the boys' tumblers of Cardhu.  In those days, I had absolutely no interest in scotch, and so never tried it.

Jeff was a very easygoing sort who imposed little on others, except at the card table: there was to be no discussion of  work.  He hated his job at a photo mat.  For a degree holder in history, working minimum wage developing photos all day was fairly soul sucking work.  Not that Keith and I were fulfilling our respective daseins.  I was trimming trees on a Christmas tree farm that summer while working towards a degree in philosophy that would make me uniquely qualified for academic life in the 18th century.  Keith was supposed to be doing a business degree, but he worked too many hours at his parent's Chinese restaurant and partied like it was 1999 every night.  Anyhow, so long as Keith and I adhered to Jeff's one little rule, we had a pretty good time.

Many years later, Keith still manages a Chinese restaurant, Jeff passed away in Halifax, and I (a swivel servant) found myself one bright and sunny day in a liquor store in New Hampshire staring at a bottle of Cardhu.

Nose (undiluted)
Fruity, apple blossoms, citrus and then some ashy peat with decaying leaves.

Palate (undiluted)
Initially gripping before transitioning to very sweet pears, apple, demerara sugar cubes, oak and vanilla.  Kinda like drinking the syrup of Delmonte's fruit cup with a flourish of spice and oak.

Finish (undiluted)
Peppered malt, a slightest of hints of anise, pomegranate, brazil nuts, and well . . . peppermints.

General Impressions
This is a light bodied Speyside malt that is rounded, fairly soft and not offensive. I find it too sweet for my tastes and rather one dimensional.  I can understand why Jeff and Keith enjoyed it. They were scotch whisky novices back in the day, and Cardhu was gentle, so gentle, it made young men think they could drink the stuff of old men.

Price Point
This is cheaply priced for a 12 year old single malt. Around $40 in Arizona, New Hampshire and other places. I suppose if you are buying a gift for someone who likes Cutty Sark or Glenfiddich 12, then this will do the trick. For the price you get what you pay for: a straight forward/stereotypical/flaccid presentation of uninspiring citrus, honey flavors of Speyside with a hint of smoke.

Frankly, I much rather drink Chivas 12 year old. That's right I would reach for that blend before this single malt.  In fact, I would go further and suggest that if there was ever a single malt that could, in a blind tasting, pass for a blend, this would be it.  I guess it comes as no surprise that this gentle malt finds itself heavily used as a core malt of various blended scotch whiskies of the Johnnie Walker brand.

While I have great respect for Keith and the late Jeff, I can't recommend Cardhu.  Nevertheless, Jeff, I toast you now, wherever you are in the great unknown, knowing full well that you are strenuously objecting, but in the most polite speech: "Debly you don't know what you are talking about."


Jason Debly

P.S.  I can't help but think that the master  blender of Cardhu was "phoning it in" with this weak effort in the 12 year old single malt market.

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for photographs, as they are the intellectual property of the photographers, and may not be reproduced without their permission.  Photo credits:  (1) Photo of Cardhu and cookies taken by Dave Norfolk; (2) photo of Cardhu and tumbler by Mattie van Rijjen;  (3) Close up photo of bottle neck emblem by Flickr member Malt Whisky Trail.  Note: All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment. Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description.


  1. I've read that Cardhu is immensely popular in Spain for these exact reasons. Since it's so hot, the Spanish want a light whisky that they can drink with ice or Coke (yep, they mix Cardhu with Coke from what I've heard). I would imagine it's the same thing with Glen Grant being hugely popular in Italy.

    1. You read correctly! Hugely popular in Spain when mixed with cola! Actually Spanish affection for Cardhu lead to some controversial decisions by Diageo (the company that owns Cardhu) in an effort to meet growing demand.

      In the 1990's Diageo was experiencing a huge upswing in sales of Cardhu in Spain. So great was demand that the distillery could not keep up. Diageo's solution was to relabel Cardhu as a "pure malt" meaning other single malts from other distilleries could be added in. The Spanish consumer put great emphasis in seeing "malt" in the label.

      The decision triggered a huge uproar in the scotch whisky consuming public, critics and industry (outside of Diageo). The debate was over what was meant by "pure malt"? Was it a vatted malt (a blend of single malts - the terminonlogy at the time) or something else. Eventually the SWA weighed in with a term of their own: "blended malt" meaning a blend of single malts.

      In the end, after a few years, Diageo abandoned the rebadged Cardhu, and reverted it back to a single malt.

      There is more to this story but best look elsewhere on the web.

    2. I'd have loved to try the Pure Malt version (wonder which Diageo malts went into the Pure Malt?). I think that explains why I've rarely seen Cardhu on American store shelves since the majority of bottles are probably going to Spain.

      No tasting notes on Cardhu and Coke? Kidding!

    3. Eric, Diageo has actually re-launched Cardhu 12yrs in the US. I think it was in 2010 that it was re-introduced to the US market. However, it had been absent before that back to 2003 when it was pulled.

      I think you will see a lot more of it now.

  2. Been reading all your posts over the past couple of weeks. Very informative and entertaining stuff. This one just saved me some money. Thank you. I've bought a few bottles on your recommendation. Even thought of your blog last night sipping on my first dram of Dalwhinnie 15. It was pretty good but nothing outstanding or awe-inspiring.

    I am looking for something "special" right now. I have a bottle of Lagalvuin coming today and HP15 too and have the Laphroig and Arbeg and Talisker and such already. Most of the 12 year bottles of note (that aren't too sherried) from your blog are already sitting in my cabinet. What would you have to have in your cabinet in the (preferrably a 15-18 year) $75-$100 US range?

    1. My must-haves in my cabinet at all times between 15 & 18yrs are:

      - Highland Park 15

      - Highland Park 18

      - Yamazaki 18

      - Johnnie Walker Green Label 15yrs (get it while you can as it has been discontinued!)

      - GlenDronach 15 (watch out! Sherry bomb!)

      . . .

      And a couple that don't fall between 15 & 18yrs but are just as good:

      - Talisker 10yrs

      - Highland Park 12

      - Clynelish 14


    2. Since you seem to like the Islay peat monsters, I have heard wonderful things about Ardbeg Uigiedail. If you liver in the US you should be able to find it in the $60-70 range, and I have heard several peat heads say it would still be great at twice that price. I have yet to try it myself, though I did buy a friend a bottle for a wedding present but he has yet to open it so I can try it.

  3. Ah good man suggesting Clynelish - brilliant bottle and what a history. Never really been that taken with Cardhu there are so many better single malts out there.

    1. The more I think about Cardhu, the less I like it. Really it is not noteworthy in the least.

  4. Jason,

    i wish you had done this review a little sooner - I picked up a bottle of this earlier in the year, your review inspired me to finally open it. I agree with you that this could easily pass for a blend. Though there is nothing bad or offensive about this single malt, there is also nothing distinctive or interesting.

    At least I got it while it was cheap at around $35, now I don't see it under $40 at any of my usual retailers, and closer to $50 at most.

  5. " Cardhu was gentle, so gentle, it made young men think they could drink the stuff of old men."

    Yes, it's much better to buy a stronger whiskey and then add enough water to reduce the burn to the level of a Cardhu, to make you think you can drink the stuff of old men. Nice thing about Cardhu is, you can drink it neat, and avoid that game.

    1. Be serious!!!
      In Spain dont mix cardhu with coke. We use cheapest blended Scoth for that.
      And for the record, i love "Lagavulin" or "Macallan".
      Best regards