Working through the tough times

Desiree Reid-Whitaker recommends taking time to enjoy the aromas of a whisky. PHOTOS: ANNA ALLAN
Desiree Reid-Whitaker recommends taking time to enjoy the aromas of a whisky. PHOTOS: ANNA ALLAN
Desiree Reid-Whitaker candidly admits if she had not been single and without children her whisky distillery dream probably would not have happened.

"I’m not sure I could have taken such big risks."

However, she was, so dreamed big and followed that dream. But she says its success was due to all the people that made it happen, from the bank manager, to the distiller, to her parents.

"They were incredible. It is a sign of unconditional love when your teetotal parents invest in your whisky distillery. Dad’s here every day pottering about."

It’s that story she wanted to be recorded and so despite being "not a naturally forward person" she sat down with a writer Kimberly Davis over three months to tell her story.

"I felt it was a wonderful opportunity."

The book The Spirit of Cardrona: Where Dreams are Hatched gives an insight to Reid-Whitaker’s early life, how she started in business and how she built Cardrona Distillery all tied in to the process of making whisky.

Work got under way in January 2015 on the Cardrona Distillery. Turning the first sods are Desiree...
Work got under way in January 2015 on the Cardrona Distillery. Turning the first sods are Desiree Whitaker and site foreman Matt Burgess of Queenstown-based ABL Construction.
She grew up on a dairy farm near Winchester, in South Canterbury, and her first experience was working was at MacDonald's where she became a crew trainer at just 16.

Ironically, her first proper alcoholic drink was at age 17, a cheap flask of whisky from the local bottle store. She ended up in hospital having her stomach pumped.

"I didn’t touch whisky again for many years after that — but as it turned out, the spirit wasn’t done with me yet," she says in the book.

She went on to study law at the University of Otago but also came to realise she was slipping into depression partly as a result of not having a clear direction in life.

It caused her to do a lot of soul-searching which ended with her realising she needed to allow herself some space to "find the dream that was mine".

She left university and bought a ticket to London and got a job as a bartender in a pub which got its fair share of famous customers and musicians.

Back then whisky drinking was not in fashion unless the buyer was 70 years old.

"The bottles were beautiful. I think that’s when I first became attracted to whisky."

In June, 2015, the copper whisky still made by Forsyths, of Rothes, Scotland, is hoisted into the...
In June, 2015, the copper whisky still made by Forsyths, of Rothes, Scotland, is hoisted into the distillery. FILE PHOTOS: OTAGO DAILY TIMES
But it was on a backpacking trip to Scotland with her mother that she got her first experience of Scottish whisky at Edradour, the country’s smallest traditional distillery.

"The whisky was warm and delicious. Nothing like how I remembered the stuff we’d swigged out of that little flask."

Reid-Whitaker returned to New Zealand in 2000 still without any idea of what she wanted to do.

She finished her degree, transferring her major to business, gaining first-class honours, and began to help out with the administration of her parents’ farms.

It was at this time she met her future husband and they pooled resources, starting a dairy herd and then buying a farm.

"He was a good farmer so it seemed like a natural fit."

Not content, Reid-Whitaker took a leadership course and eventually became the youngest person elected to the Fonterra Shareholders Council.

"I have a huge respect for the farming industry. I got a lot of opportunities to develop skills through the industry."

But she knew she still had not found the "thing" she really wanted to do and her marriage broke up.

She began making lists of things she could do, doing some research, scrapping ideas and moving on. Then she hit on making perfume. However, to do this she needed to know how to make its base — pure alcohol.

She headed to the United States which was undergoing a renaissance in making spirits but the more she looked into it the more her interest shifted to making spirits not perfume.

"I did some research and it appealed so I did a business plan and here we are."

The Cardrona Distillery was officially opened on January 25, 2016. Still maker Richard Forsyth,...
The Cardrona Distillery was officially opened on January 25, 2016. Still maker Richard Forsyth, of Scotland, cuts the ribbon.
Visits to distilleries in the United States and Scotland followed as she learnt from some of the great masters in whisky making followed.

The "magic" to whisky making, the distillery itself and the craftsmanship all really appealed.

"The intricacies and quirks of how its done."

After their farm was sold, Reid-Whitaker moved to Wanaka to search for land on which to put her distillery.

She had decided on the Cardrona Valley as the site but struggled to find land and water with it but with the help of local John Lee finally did.

Reid- Whitaker says the site itself adds its own qualities to the whisky being 600m above sea level and due to the local pollens from the roses (initially bought to make perfume), tussocks and other plants of the area.

As well as whisky, they also now make a vodka, gin and liqueurs. The gin was a promise to her second husband Ash Whitaker when he joined the business.

"We don’t cut corners. We use raw ingredients to make everything. We’re about making a craft product in the time honoured way. It’s very hands on."

It has not all been plain sailing, she talks about the tough times in the book, how it was much harder to do than she ever thought. The distillery went into lending services with the bank in its first year and it took a lot of work and the right advice for the business to climb out of it, she says.

Then came the challenges of Covid-19. She tells how they swung to producing hand sanitiser and disinfectant spray. But overall it had not been as hard as being put into lending services.

"Going through lockdowns and dealing with a global public health crisis has shown how resilient these very difficult early years made the Cardrona Distillery."

Reid-Whitaker, now a mother of two, advises drinkers to sip her whisky straight to appreciate its flavours but due to its high alcohol content (65-67%) then add half the volume again in water to bring it down to the percentage of a "normal"drink.

"You need to sit and warm the glass in your hand to enjoy the aromas as well as the palate. Long and slow, all in moderation.

"I think people are interested in drinking less but better."

In the book she also shares some of operations manager Kenny Vaugh’s cocktail recipes for vodka, gin and liqueurs.


The Spirit of Cardrona: Where Dreams are Hatched by Desiree Reid-Whitaker
HB RRP $65 | HarperCollins NewZealand


Cardrona Distillery Cocktails

No Hot Sauce Mary

The Bloody Mary is a classic for a reason, and each recipe variation is as personal as a pair of slippers. Kenny’s spicy and savoury start to his Christmas morning is perfect to kick the day into gear for the celebrations to come. It’s a meal in a glass! Creating a Bloody Mary with the Reid Single Malt Vodka takes the flavour to the next level.


45ml the Reid Single Malt Vodka

4 jalapenos

a wedge of lemon

a wedge of lime

a pickled onion

1 olive

a pinch of salt

A splash of Worcestershire sauce

90ml tomato juice

a choice of basil, celery stick, crispy bacon/prosciutto and black pepper, to garnish


Muddle jalapenos with lemon, lime, pickled onion, olives, salt and Worcestershire sauce.

Add the Reid vodka, tomato juice and ice. Shake well.

Dump contents of the cocktail shaker into large, tall glass and garnish with clapped basil, celery stick, crispy bacon or prosciutto and cracked black pepper.

Orange Espresso Martini

Nothing gets the party started like an espresso martini. This little beauty combines zingy orange zest and a hit of coffee with the beautiful texture of "The Reid" vodka to create a balanced and powerful version of an old favourite.


30ml "The Reid" single malt vodka

30ml Rose Rabbit Orange Liqueur

a shot of espresso

coffee beans and chocolate powder, to garnish


Into a Boston glass, add vodka, liqueur and a shot of espresso.

Add ice and shake vigorously.

Double strain into a martini glass and garnish with coffee beans and a sprinkle of chocolate powder.

Rose Rabbit Elderflower Iced Tea

It feels almost healthy to sip iced tea on a hot summer’s day. This mildly oriental cocktail is great for garden parties and is easily batched up for larger gatherings.


30ml Rose Rabbit Elderflower Liqueur

130ml cold green tea

rosemary, thyme, apple, cucumber and a dried rose bud, to garnish


Into a short rocks glass filled with ice, add Rose Rabbit Elderflower Liqueur and top with cold green tea. Garnish with fresh rosemary, thyme, fresh apple and cucumber.

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