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Whisky heroes

The Cumming family, Cardhu

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From illegal distillers to pillars of the establishment, the Cumming family’s saga mirrors the modern history of Scotch whisky, with two remarkable women to the fore. Richard Woodard reports.

Elizabeth Cumming
Astute businesswoman: Elizabeth Cumming’s decisions secured the family fortune

The saga of the Cumming family of Cardow, renamed Cardhu in 1981, traces the timeline of the modern Scotch whisky industry. Within three generations, illegal distillers became figures of wealth and influence, with a Cumming knighted and appointed chairman of The Distillers Company (DCL). None of this would have happened, however, without the efforts of two remarkable women: Helen and Elizabeth Cumming.

In 1811, John and Helen Cumming took out a 19-year lease on Cardow Farm at Knockando on Speyside. A remote spot with easy access to water and peat, it was the perfect place for illicit distillation.

In 1816, John Cumming was convicted three times for malting and distilling ‘privately’, but it was probably Helen who was operating the stills – and who had to outwit the local excisemen. As Brian Spiller recounts in Cardhu: The World of Malt Whisky:

‘On one occasion, when brewing, she was warned that they were approaching. There was just enough time to hide the distilling apparatus, to substitute the materials of bread-making, and to smear her arms and hands with flour. When the knock came at the door, she opened it with a welcoming smile and the words: “Come awa’ ben, I’m just baking.”’

In those days, the Knockando area was littered with illicit stills. When the excisemen arrived at Cardow Farm – they were often billeted there while conducting their local investigations – Helen Cumming would cook them a meal and, while they ate, slip out of the back door and raise a red flag to warn the neighbours of their arrival.

Cardow farmhouse, late 19th century

Humble origins: Cardow’s farmhouse, with Elizabeth Cumming just visible in the doorway

In time, the excisemen grew rather frustrated, according to Ronnie Cox, brands heritage director, spirits, at Berry Bros & Rudd, and Helen Cumming’s great-great-great-grandson. ‘They were fed up with not finding any illegal stills, so they decided to offer her a bribe,’ he says. At first, Helen Cumming refused, but eventually she gave in, telling the men to return in a fortnight.

‘But within those two weeks, she told everybody what her plan was,’ says Cox. ‘She would go to the cave behind the big black rock [Cardow/Cardhu comes from the Scots Gaelic for black rock] and they would discover what looked like a still. But it would be the old, worn-out parts of a still. Then she would split the bribe with the neighbours and they would use it to buy new equipment.’

As a result, Cox adds, everyone was happy. ‘The Customs & Excise people won, in that they went away with the still parts as evidence – and everyone else went back to distilling again because they could now afford new parts.’

When the 1823 Excise Act made legal distilling viable, the Cummings were among the first to buy a licence, accepting advice and assistance from George Smith, founder of The Glenlivet, and John Grant, of Glen Grant. In the early days, Smith bought and sold on much of Cardow’s output while the Cummings found customers for themselves.

Cardow Car-Dhu showcard

Making a name: Elizabeth Cumming registered the Car-Dhu trademark in the 1890s

John and Helen Cumming soon handed on Cardow’s operations to their son, Lewis Cumming. As other Speyside distilleries expanded, he made great play of Cardow being ‘the smallest distillery in Scotland’, extolling the virtues of the ‘sma’ still’ and winning a growing reputation for his whisky. Lewis told a Portsmouth wine and spirits merchant in 1832:

‘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. I have hitherto sold my spirits in small quantities and have had fully as much demand as I could supply. Yet I would no doubt prefer a customer who could take a puncheon occasionally and give me ready payments.’

Nonetheless, there were Cardow critics – most notably, his brother James Cumming, a wine and spirits merchant in Edinburgh, and a regular customer. In a letter to Lewis dated 31 December 1847, he writes:

‘I wish very much you would if at all possible make your aqua [spirit] with less flavour and a great deal less soap; it tastes of nothing but soap and although I can not say so here Glengrant whisky is worth a shilling per gallon more than yours for this part of the county, if you cannot use less soap you should put a higher head on your still … If I did not mix yours with Buchans I could not sell a gallon of it.’

The response to this trenchant criticism – with its allusion to an early example of the technique of blending – is not recorded.

John Walker & Sons Cardow advert

New owner: John Walker & Sons made great play of the quality of Cardow’s whisky

Lewis Cumming died in 1872, aged 69, survived by his 95-year-old mother Helen, who died two years later. Tales of her exploits persist to this day, with one Knockando resident of the mid-1980s recalling his grandmother describing how ‘Granny Cumming’ would sell whisky through the kitchen window of Cardow Farm at a shilling a bottle.

To say that Lewis Cumming’s death left his widow Elizabeth, 45, with a few challenges would be an understatement. Apart from running the farm and the distillery, she had two young sons to care for, a five-year-old daughter who died suddenly three days after her father, and she was pregnant at the time with a third son.

Nonetheless, the changes that Elizabeth Cumming wrought over the next two decades, among them the registering of the Car-Dhu trademark, were remarkable. By this time, Cardow was becoming antiquated, so Elizabeth secured a ‘feu’ or tenure over adjoining land and, in 1884-5, set about building a new distillery.

Distillery chronicler Alfred Barnard, who visited at this time, was able to observe Cardow past and future. The old buildings were, he wrote, ‘of the most straggling and primitive description’, whereas the recently completed new distillery was ‘a handsome pile of buildings’.

The spirit, he added, 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’.

John Fleetwood Cumming

John Fleetwood Cumming: Cardow’s whisky made him a wealthy and influential individual

Elizabeth’s decision to build a new distillery was prompted by more than the need to modernise. As Barnard implies, Cardow’s spirit was highly sought-after by blenders, so it was imperative to increase production (from 25,000 gallons to 40,000 gallons a year, according to Barnard, although Spiller says production trebled to 60,000 gallons). The old stills were sold for £120 in March 1886 to William Grant, who was building a distillery of his own in Dufftown called Glenfiddich.

One of Cardow’s chief customers was the newly-formed DCL, which was keen to secure its supply in the best way possible – by buying the new distillery. The company approached Elizabeth Cumming in 1886 through her merchant brother-in-law, James, but she wrote back to him that she ‘could not possibly entertain such an idea’ as it ‘would not be justice to my family’.

Seven years later, Elizabeth’s mood had changed. Her eldest son, Lewis, had died suddenly, so second son John Fleetwood Cumming had been forced to give up his medical studies in Aberdeen and return to the farm.

In September 1893, Elizabeth agreed to sell Cardow to blender John Walker & Sons for £20,500 (excluding stocks), plus 100 shares in the company (worth £5,000) and a seat on the board for her son John, who would be paid a minimum annual salary of £200 plus expenses.

Cardow distillery in 1961

Modern face: The rebuilt Cardow of 1961 was given its current name, Cardhu, 20 years later

JF Cumming was now a wealthy and influential man. Or, as his daughter put it rather more colourfully: ‘He was on the pig’s back.’ In 1888, he moved into a palatial new home at Aberlour overlooking the Spey: Dowans House, later an orphanage and now The Dowans Hotel.

Selling Cardow secured the future of family and distillery alike. Under its new owner, Cardow was able to survive the downturn following the Pattison Crash in 1898; a year later, Walker spent £7,000 on doubling its production, adding shell-and-tube condensers in 1902. A proper road, part-funded by Walker, now led from the distillery to the new Knockando station on the Strathspey line.

The sale was also one of Elizabeth Cumming’s last actions at Cardow; a year later, she died suddenly at the age of 67.

‘She was obviously quite a character,’ says Ronnie Cox. ‘She was remembered in Knockando as one of the most generous and loving people in the community – a kind of general factotum, a banker, a judge of family squabbles.’ And, added the local newspaper, ‘a true friend of the poor’.

Meanwhile, Spiller quotes a local journalist of that time:

‘…she had herself, by her wise and far-seeing management of her affairs, put the business in a position that had secured for it success. Her own hand was in everything … Nothing better could have been made of it, even by a man who was constantly before the world.’

Sir Ronald Cumming

Man of substance: In 1961, Sir Ronald Cumming was named chairman of DCL

The following decades saw further expansion at Cardow, and the public flotation of John Walker & Sons in 1923, followed shortly afterwards by its absorption, with others, into DCL.

JF Cumming died in 1933, the same year that his son, Ronald Cumming, became Walker’s export director (he later became DCL chairman and was knighted); and that George Thomson, a former trainee clerk at Cardhu, was appointed Walker’s production director.

From humble, illicit beginnings, Cardow was now a force in the larger world of whisky, and the transformation of its fortunes – and of those of the Cumming family – was remarkable.

‘The story goes that, in the early 1900s, JF Cumming bought himself a motor car – one of only three in Morayshire,’ recounts Ronnie Cox. ‘One day, when he was driving along the single-track road to Cardow, he met Wally, the odd job man, coming down the other way on his bicycle.

‘Wally was “full”, as they say, and had never seen a motor car before, so he wasn’t quite sure what side of the road he should go. Anyway, he took fright and drunkenly wobbled off into the ditch. Great-grandfather applied the anchors, got out and said: “Wally, ye’re a darned disgrace to ye family; ye’re a darned disgrace to Cardow. What’ve ye got to say for yeself?”

‘And Wally replied: “Wonderful stuff, fine stuff, this whisky, Mr Cumming. It puts some people in fine motor cars... and others in the ditch.”’

All photos courtesy of the Diageo Archive

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