TV’s “Shark Man” Riley Elliott goes on an epic trip in a Mazda CX-8 to visit a unique distillery.

Story by Riley Elliott, photography Amber Jones.

As a marine biologist specialising in shark behaviour, I was intrigued but well out of my comfort zone when I received a fascinating invitation from Mazda. The challenge? To drive the new Mazda CX-8 (a seven-seat diesel SUV that delivers a thoroughly compelling blend of versatility, performance and fuel economy) over the intimidating Crown Range Road and onwards to Cardrona Distillery, one of the world’s southernmost whisky producers.

As I exit the hustle and bustle of Queenstown, where my journey starts, the open valleys of greenery and sheep widen in front of me then narrow as I arrive at the start of the Crown Range Road: the highest main road in the country.

The road begins with a series of hairpin corners, each demanding caution due to the icy conditions. But I soon take things up a level and planting my foot out of the next hairpin, feel the significant low-end torque of the diesel engine kick in.

Given the frozen conditions I’m extremely impressed by the i-ACTIV AWD, which helps ensure perfect stability. My confidence builds and the bends become a slalom, each corner feeling tighter, yet more fluid than the last.

I feel in control in a dangerous environment, and the driving becomes addictive. As I reach the summit the road climbs higher and the conditions get harsher, yet the experience becomes increasingly enjoyable.

The challenge is different descending, as the CX-8 negotiates off-camber turns past unnerving bold lettered ‘ICE GRIT’ road signs. But my ascent has instilled confidence and before long the Cardrona Valley, sun bathed and inviting, lies ahead.

Although the Crown Range is a wild environment, it’s easy to see why it draws people in. But locals here need resolve to simply get by, let alone thrive. Desiree and Ash Whitaker’s Cardrona Distillery is a brilliant example of what’s possible.

Born out of Desiree’s desire to produce whisky and live in a beautiful part of the world, the distillery may be a dream realised, but it took five years for the first spirit to flow due to the nature of site research, building consents and construction.

A fierce sense of challenger spirit has served the Whitakers well. Ash had no experience of whisky, but he effortlessly shifts between farmer attire and muddy boots into the occasional suit to host the stream of interested visitors.

Knowledge of the actual process of distillation comes from Desiree. Having managed a pub in London and visited the Edradour distillery in Pitlochry, Scotland, the seeds of her passion were firmly sown.

She then returned to New Zealand to enjoy a successful career farming, before starting to research spirit making in 2011. By 2013, she’d sold her farm and was ready to devote her life to her dream of building a successful distillery.

Ash gives me a tour of the distillery from start to finish. I walk the yard and the sheds, and there’s no denying the copper cylinders and the views are impressive, plus the aroma inspiring.

Cardrona produces its spirits properly, starting with barley, water and yeast. The water used comes from the Cardrona mountain itself where it is combined with yeast, and fermented in the wash backs for 72 hours.

Alcohol is extracted in the gleaming copper pot stills. The spirit is separated into the head, heart and tail, but only the heart is destined for the traditional oak casks to mature into Cardrona Single Malt Whisky.

A small group of beaming employees urge me to drive them around the surrounding area in the CX-8 to show me what they term their ‘office’. Using all seven of the SUV’s seats it’s a simple job to get everyone comfortably in.

I’m taken to the nearby rosehip fields, which the distillery uses to provide the fragrance for its award-winning gin The Source. Deer and cattle from nearby farms roam, but like clockwork turn up to eat the spent barley.

And the good news is you can witness the wonder of Cardrona yourself. Ash explains: “Coming here allows people to taste, see and experience where the whisky comes from. As it sits in the barrels it’s absorbing the clean mountain air”.

There’s no doubt that visiting forms an emotional connection to the whisky, but what about the taste? Well, as I have my return journey to savour, I have to decline. But the unpeated single malt, matured in a mixture of ex-sherry butts from Spain and ex-Bourbon casks from Kentucky, smells exquisitely rich and enticing. I have every confidence that it is as wondrous as the area which produced it.