For the love of Cardhu

Passionate about family and making fine whisky, the Cummings of Cardow (Cardhu) distilled for more than a century and were a well-loved part of the Speyside community


On Whitsunday 1811, one John Cumming took on a 19-year lease on Cardow Farm in the parish of Knockando, not far from the River Spey, and in relatively remote country. The location was ideal for making whisky to supplement the agricultural income, and John’s wife, Helen, became adept at producing good quality spirit. According to tradition, she even walked barefoot over the hills the dozen or more miles to Elgin to deliver whisky to eager customers.

The only problem with this enterprise was the lack of a licence, and during 1816, John Cumming was convicted on no fewer than three occasions of illicit distilling. The local magistrate would seem to have been quietly sympathetic to his plight, and perhaps even a customer, as only nominal fines were paid.

ABOVE: Elizabeth Cumming, daughter-in-law of Helen

Helen Cumming was clearly a resourceful woman, and when advised on one occasion that excise officers were approaching the farm while she was distilling, she just had time to hide the apparatus and smear flour on her arms and hands before the officers arrived, declaring that she had been baking. The aromas of mashing could plausibly be explained away as bread baking in the oven. On occasions, the excise officers would stay at the Cummings’ farm while on business in the area as there was no local inn. While they ate the meal she had prepared, Helen would sneak out to the barn, where she raised a red flag to warn her illicitly-distilling neighbours of the officers’ presence.

The present day exterior of Cardhu distillery

In the wake of the 1823 Excise Act, which reduced duty in an effort to cut the illicit trade and stimulate legal distilling, John Cumming took out a licence for Cardow, and whisky-making proceeded on a more professional footing. John and Helen’s eldest son Lewis was 21-years old when the licence was granted in 1824, and he went on to run the distillery, with the licence later being held in his name. John Cumming died in March 1846, aged 72, while Helen lived to the remarkable age of 97.

ABOVE: John F Cumming, who built The Dowans in Aberlour

Lewis and his brother Hugh took on the farm lease after their father’s death and prided themselves on making high-quality spirit in small stills. Indeed, in a letter of 1832 to Portsmouth wine and spirits merchants Hickley & Victor, Lewis Cumming wrote that: “The quality I have no doubt will please, my still being of the smallest kind. I use no other fuel but peat, which is a great thing for making good whisky.”

Lewis Cumming died, aged 69, in February 1872, and the Elgin Courant described him as: “…one of the most kind and hospitable men to be found in the whole county”. He left behind a widow, Elizabeth, whom he had married late in life and who was 24 years his junior. Elizabeth was the daughter of another local farmer, and at the time of her husband’s death she was pregnant with her fourth child, a boy, while a five-year-old daughter died just three days after Lewis.

Elizabeth clearly possessed the same resourceful and resilient spirit as her mother-in-law, as she set about running the distillery and farm. The great boom in blended whisky that was taking place through the 1870s and 1880s led her to consider creating an entirely new, enlarged Cardow distillery to cope with the demand for malt spirit.

During a visit in the mid-1880s the journalist Alfred Barnard wrote of Cardow that: “…the buildings were of the most straggling and primitive description, and although water power existed, a great part of the work was done by manual labour. It is wonderful how long this state of things continued, considering the successful business that was carried on for so many years.”

He also noted, however, that: “Previous to the time of our visit a feu had been obtained to a piece of ground in close proximity to the old work, and an entirely new Distillery had just been built [in 1884] on the most approved plan, and with all the latest improvements and appliances.”

‘New’ Cardow allowed production to increase from 20,000 gallons (91,000 litres) to 60,000 gallons (273,000 litres), and in terms of the actual whisky, Barnard also wrote that the Cardow spirit was “…of the thickest and richest description, and admirably adapted for blending purposes. Our guide told us that a single gallon of it is sufficient to cover ten gallons of plain spirit, and that it commands a very high price in the market.”

The equipment from ‘old’ Cardow, including a rather worn pair of stills, was sold to a Johnny-come-lately ex-shoemaker who was establishing his own Glenfiddich distillery a few miles away at Dufftown. His name was William Grant. The Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) was a significant purchaser of Cardow whisky, and as blended Scotch sales continued to grow, the firm looked to acquire a distillery to secure supplies of malt spirit. Elizabeth Cumming was approached via her brother-in-law James Cumming, a wine and spirits merchant, to see if she would sell Cardow.

Her response, dated 4th January 1886, is revealing regarding her sense of family loyalty. She wrote: “I note what you say about disposing of my Distillery. I could not possibly entertain such an idea, being that I have three sons to provide for…I have had several applications from intending purchasers, but it has always been my opinion that it would not be justice to my family.”

Elizabeth’s eldest son, Lewis, was closely involved in running the distillery, but when he died later that year, his brother John left medical school at Aberdeen University to take his place, essentially running the distillery on his mother’s behalf.

In 1893 the Cummings finally gave in to pressure to sell Cardow, signing a deal with John Walker & Sons Ltd on 19th September. The sum received was £20,500, exclusive of stock. John Cumming was to manage the distillery, and Elizabeth saw to it that he received 100 shares in John Walker & Sons Ltd – worth £5,000 – and a seat on the company board.

As she foresaw, this ultimately made him a very rich man. Having married Beatrice Kynoch of Keith in 1891, he went on to build a magnificent baronial-style house near Aberlour. It was named The Dowans, and is familiar to visitors to Speyside today as one of the area’s best hotels, appropriately boasting an excellent whisky bar.

Sadly, Elizabeth Cumming was not to enjoy her retirement for long, dying suddenly on 19th May 1894, aged 67. A local newspaper obituary described her as: “A true friend of all the poor,” and recorded how she had acted as something of an unofficial banker for the local community, giving interest-free loans with no security to local people in need of help. Her son John apparently continued this role.

He retired from the board of John Walker & Sons Ltd in 1923 and devoted himself to farming and public service, dying at the age of 69 in January 1933. A mile-long convoy of cars following the hearse to Knockando churchyard was testament to the respect and affection in which he was held.

The Cumming connection with the Scotch whisky industry continued through John Cumming’s son Ronald, who ultimately became chairman of DCL, and it continues to this day, as Ronnie Cox, brands heritage director at Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd, is Helen Cumming’s great-great-great-grandson.

Arhchive imagery from the Cardhu maltings

The Cardow Cummings were a strong, loyal family with a sense of duty to those they employed and the community in which they lived. In this, they existed in the great tradition of many other Speyside whisky-making families, including the Grants of Glenfarclas, Glen Grant and Glenfiddich, and the Smiths of Glenlivet.

The present day Cardhu distillery also celebrates the story of the Cumming family with a statue of Elizabeth – raising her famous red flag – alongside the Johnnie Walker Striding Man.