Entrepreneur shows proof of concept

Desiree Reid-Whitaker. Photo: supplied
Desiree Reid-Whitaker. Photo: supplied

THE SPIRIT OF CARDRONA
Desiree Reid-Whitaker
HarperCollins

REVIEWED BY DAVID BARNES

This is not the book I was expecting. As a whisky aficionado, I knew that Cardrona was a star in the growing array of small New Zealand distilleries, filling the void left by the closure of Dunedin’s Willowbank in 1997, so I was expecting a story that focused on the whisky and other spirits. In fact, it is almost peripheral at least until towards the end.

Instead, this is the story of a young woman with a passion for business, looking for a project that would be unique and, almost by accident, developing a vision for a distillery in Otago’s mountain ranges. Part memoir, part business exemplar, it tracks her journey as she acquires the building blocks on which she built her dream.

Growing up on a farm sowed the seeds of working in agribusiness (whisky, after all, is processed barley), and being made a crew trainer at McDonald’s at age 16 showed an early talent for getting the best out of staff. Pub work in London was an entree of sorts to the world of selling alcohol, and by 21 Desiree Reid-Whitaker was the general manager.

Back in New Zealand and armed with a business degree, she farmed with her first husband. Her business bent led her to a series of scholarships, courses and study tours, as well as governance roles at Fonterra. The end of her marriage and a realisation that dairy farming was not her dream led to a lengthy exploration that initially settled on perfume manufacturing, and it was the common factor of distilling that took her to whisky.

A site in Cardrona gave the sense of place so often associated with Scottish distilleries, as well as access to a healthy supply of both pure mountain water and passing traffic (pre-Covid).

The range of products expanded to include gin, vodka and liqueurs. The fact that these do not require the lengthy ageing that whisky does was, she insists, a bonus rather than the rationale.

A turning point for the whisky came in 2018 when the organiser of Christchurch’s biennial Dramfest, Michael Fraser Milne, visited Reid-Whitaker with some international guests. They turned out to be Scotch whisky royalty, with renowned writers Dave Broom and Charles MacLean, Alex Bruce of independent bottler Adelphi and Kilchoman distillery owner Anthony Wills. These experts tasted the two-and-a-bit year old spirit and insisted that it had to be bottled and released soon.

The result was a series of expressions bottled at three years maturation, branded as Just Hatched. This has won awards, unheard of for such a young whisky.

Nevertheless, there were hurdles ahead. The Covid lockdowns, here and in the key British market, put the inevitable squeeze both on spirit sales and on the visitor market. But the business has survived, and with the 10-year milestone where the fully-fledged whisky can be bottled and sold approaching, the plans to be operating in Cardrona in 100 years look promising.

Reid-Whitaker, with assistance from a ghost writer, writes with candour, not shying away from describing personal and business low points. She provides a readable narrative for the general reader, and one that may well provide ideas and inspiration to those with an entrepreneurial bent. The story is complemented with a large array of excellent photographs.

David Barnes lives in Lower Hutt and is an avid tramper and armchair mountaineer

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