The story of ex-Southern Cantabria Desiree Reid-Whitaker – a self-described shy student who didn’t complete her law degree and instead did an OE, then changed direction before building a distillery that produces award-winning whiskey – has just been released. Journalist Esther Ashby-Coventry spoke to her ahead of her October release.
It would fill Desiree Reid-Whitaker with joy if, in 30 or 40 years, her children opened a bottle of single malt whiskey that she had put down during her leadership at the Cardrona Distillery.
âMy goal is that 100 years from now the Cardrona Distillery will still be here,â said Founder and CEO Desiree Reid-Whitaker.
The distillery, which makes award-winning single malt whiskey, vodka and other liquors, is located just off Cardrona Valley Road between Queenstown and Wanaka. Here, the clump-covered mountains provide a barren brown backdrop in summer and a wintry wonderland in winter. A shale building lets you know you’ve arrived at the Cardrona Distillery – Reid-Whitaker’s dream come true.
The story of an unlikely whiskey distillery, set in such a stunning landscape, and its general manager, was captured in The spirit of Cardrona – in a simple and interesting style by Kimberley Davis in a mix of business and biography style.
Davis grew up in the Cardrona Valley and interviewed Reid-Whitaker three hours a week for six weeks for the book.
âKimberley did a wonderful job and captured my story. I felt like my whole life was preparing me with the skills to build this business, âsaid Reid-Whitaker.
She said research has shown people in leadership positions are not the bold and charismatic people they are often assumed to be.
âThey are quiet leaders who push the team forward, and if there is a problem, they will be ahead. I like to aspire to be like that.
The best advice he has ever received comes from mentor and past Federated Farmers Provincial President Eddie Glass.
âHe said, ‘If you have to make an important decision about something that makes you angryâ¦ give it two sleeps. You have to sleep twice before you make up your mind, âshe said.
The establishment of the company, which counts Scotland as its largest export market, has not been smooth, but Reid-Whitaker said through hard times she has learned that she had emotional resilience.
She said she received curve bullets throughout her journey ultimately leading to the establishment of the distillery – remembering a time when she had planned to travel with a friend and when she arrived at the meeting point – you at an overseas airport discovered that he would not be able to reach her because her passport had been stolen – she made the decision to continue her trip.
This ability to continue proved invaluable years later when the Covid-19 lockdown stalled the normal operation of the business in 2020. With the help of a prepared endurance budget, the distillery was rather focused on the production of hospital grade disinfectant and disinfectant – which has been offered free of charge to St John across the South Island and to anyone who has come to the door in need of it.
Distilling whiskey was not Reid-Whitaker’s first choice in his quest to create something special – perfume making was.
Seeing big, she ordered 2,500 scented roses – but due to the big order, she was delivered in three seasons.
Not having a place to plant them outside of her mother’s garden didn’t deter her.
A trip abroad to learn as much as possible about the perfume-making process, which includes the distillery, led her to realize that whiskey was actually what she should be doing. It was late 2011.
âPerfume was not my passion, whiskey. I was going to build a single malt distillery.
GROWING IN SOUTH CANTERBURY
Reid-Whitaker grew up with hard-working parents who suffered financial losses from flooding on the Taieri Plains. The family moved to a farm in Winchester when she was six, then faced a drought.
Her mother worked as a principal in a local kindergarten, her daily routine consisted of milking the cows in the morning before preparing the children for school, dropping them off at the bus stop and then after finishing milking the cows at again, help the kids with their homework and finally finish the farm accounts.
âI prepared family meals from the age of 10. I never had to learn to work hard. It is something that I have always known how to do.
As a teenager, Reid-Whitaker was so determined that when her parents couldn’t afford braces, she found a job at McDonald’s after school and paid for them herself. The orthodontist was so surprised that this student at Craighead Diocesan School was paying the bill herself that he cut it in half.
Her hard work and tenacity was noticed in the fast food chain and soon the 12th grade student became a crew trainer. Teaching staff older than her.
Returning from her OE in 2000, she completed her education, moving from a law specialization to a commerce specialization, through Massey University and was invited to do honors on campus, which she did. .
She later became the youngest person to be elected to Fonterra’s Shareholders’ Council and was a Nuffield Fellow.
Inspired by the adventures and achievements of Sir Edmund Hillary, Reid-Whitaker said she wanted to create something special.
BUILD A DISTILLERY
A tour of distilleries in Scotland and a comparison of the landscape to Winchester made Reid-Whitaker realize that Cardrona would be the perfect location for a distillery. But buying land there was no easy task, especially land with water rights, the main ingredient in distillation.
The Queenstown Lakes District Council considers the Cardrona Valley to be an âoutstanding natural landscapeâ, which means that any activity on the land should not have any negative effect on the natural qualities of the site or the surrounding environment.
Eventually, she found the perfect site in the Cardrona Valley, acquired stills and other equipment, and opened her farm in October 2015. Two years after moving to Wanaka in search of land, the first keg was installed in November 2015.
Whiskey is a long-term game and needs to be aged for at least three years.
âWe are small on the world stage, but we are noticed and we are focused on making exceptional whiskey. “
To this end, the company uses the best barrels in the world that have been seasoned, around 70 percent of the flavor, aroma and color comes from the oak barrels. Each time the keg is used, the flavor is reduced.
Instead of importing drums by taking them apart and then rebuilding them, Reid-Whitaker brought them across the country. Although it is more expensive, it means that the interior is maintained.
“One of the beauties of whiskey is that the pleasure is in the nose.”
In 2016, The Source Gin by Cardrona won gold at the New York World Spirit and Wine Awards, then in 2020 their whiskey won the Best NZ Single Malt Under 12 at the World Whiskey Awards.
She said the company’s highest sales were in Scotland – arguably the home of single malt whiskey.
Reid-Whitaker said she had just returned from a six-week trip to the UK in August, from which she received two orders from a luxury department store, Harrods, and a deal to try the whiskey at Waitrose – a top-end supermarket chain.
Despite the accolades, the founder of the Cardrona Distillery said she couldn’t take full credit for her success. She said four families are involved in the business, the Reids, Whitakers, Mcleans and Falconers who have worked together to make the distillery the triumph that it is.
Commissioned and published by Harper Collins, The spirit of Cardrona was released on October 1, but a delay in delivery has delayed copies of the book – which are not expected to arrive in New Zealand until late October. The book will be available at bookstores across the country.