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I had the pleasure of touring Cardhu Distillery while I was in Scotland. burp. So much history and delicious whisky, and even more amazing… it was run by women. I happened to notice a beautiful silhouette of a woman waving a flag on their packaging and asked our tour guide for the story. It was riveting.

So to make sure I got my facts straight, I emailed them for more info on Elizabeth and Helen Cumming. Here was their reply:

In 1811, John Cumming took a lease of Cardow farm.  In 1816 he was caught and convicted 3 times of malting and distilling ‘privately’ without a licence.  According to tradition, his wife Helen carried out these activities. She is said to have taken the produce to Elgin, walking barefoot over the Mannoch Hill. All things being equal, she was more than a match for the excise men. Once, when brewing she was warned that they were approaching. There was just enough time for her to hide the distilling apparatus, to substitute the materials of bread making, and to smear her arms and hands with flour.  As there was no inn for miles Helen would invite the men to stay at the farm.  Once she had prepared their meal she would go out into the back yard and raise a red flag over the barn to alert the neighbours that the excise men were in the area.

In 1923 the government eased the restrictions on legal distillers, and cut the duty.  The more professional of the illicit distillers took out liscences under the new Excise Act, including John Cumming in 1824.

Lewis, the eldest of the Cumming’s children managed the distillery from 1832, and when his father died in 1846 he took over the farm as well.  The distillery was not much larger than a smuggler’s bothy, but the output helped to pay for the farm, and the farm helped the distillery to pay. 

Lewis Cumming died in 1872, leaving his mother and his widow Elizabeth with 4 children.  In order to bring up and educate her family Elizabeth resolved to carry on the farm and the distillery herself. Helen died in 1874 aged 97

In order to increase the output of the distillery Elizabeth purchased 4 acres of land and built a whole new distillery within 300 yards of the old buildings.  The new distillery was built in 1884 and was capable of producing 3 times the output of its predecessor.  All possible precautions were taken to make sure that there were no changes in the character of the whisky.  “New Cardow” used the same water, peat for the same area and so far as they were suitable, some of the old utensils.

When Elizabeth’s eldest son, who had been helping her run the distillery, died in 1886, her second son John Fleetwood gave up his medical studies to take his brother’s place.

There were difficult decisions to make after the whisky industry entered a decade of boom in 1886.  In order for blenders to secure supplies of whisky, it was felt they either had to buy distilleries at inflated prices, or build their own. As Elizabeth Cumming was the owner of a first-class Highland malt distillery, it is likely that she must have come under intense pressure to sell.

In 1893 the distillery was sold to John Walker & Sons Limited, of Kilmarnock.  The purchase price of £20,500 included shares valued at £5000.  These were transferred to John.  A condition of sale was that John should be appointed to the Walker’s board.  The takeover marked Elizabeth’s final retirement from the business, and she died a year later in 1894”

The distillery is the only distillery to be pioneered by a woman and in fact had 2 very strong women behind it. Helen was the one who started off making Cardhu whisky and Elizabeth was the one who grew the business and later sold it to the Walker family.

I was so impressed with the distillery and this story!!! For further reading you can purchase a book on Cardhu here: http://tinyurl.com/n6wqu3m

Or visit their website to see beautiful pics of the property and information on their products: http://www.discovering-distilleries.com/cardhu/