For a long time, I’ve had a problem with Canadian whisky (I’ll use the Canadian spelling throughout to avoid any confusion in jumping back and forth between “whisky” and “whiskey”). I’m not proud to admit this, as it seems a little presumptuous, but I know I’m also not the only one. Even though Canadian whisky brands still export about 70% of their product to the United States, in this hyper-aware and near-saturated bourbon frenzy we currently live in, Canadian whisky just doesn’t get a whole lot of respect, at least among many American whisky aficionados (nerds). This is not entirely undeserved, what with the fast and loose rules about adding neutral spirits, coloring, and flavoring that our neighbors to the north have (aka the 9.09% rule – up to that amount of additives are allowed), and the perception of adulterated spirits that ensues. Also, have you tried Canadian Club recently? Not good.
Recently, though, I had the chance to visit the Crown Royal distillery in Gimli, a town just north of charmingly dreary Winnipeg, to see how this whisky sold in a purple bag is distilled, and sample the many different expressions the brand offers. I was duly impressed both by the quality of the liquid and the history behind what is the most popular Canadian whisky sold in the United States.
The distillery is a gigantic operation dominating the small lakeside town of Gimli, jutting up like an industrial factory that interrupts seemingly endless acres of farmland. In short, it’s not pretty or bucolic in the way that many of the distilleries that dot the Kentucky countryside are. The large, utilitarian scale makes sense – Crown Royal’s 24/7 operation goes through 300 metric tons of grain per day to produce 33 million LPA (liters of pure alcohol) of distillate per year that fills 1.4 million barrels stored in 46 warehouses on site (four more are being constructed, which will bring the total number of barrels to 1.6 million). That’s a lot of numbers.
This is a massive undertaking apparently leaving no time for architectural eye candy to lure in visitors. Still, it seems like a wasted tourism opportunity. The distillery is not open to the public, only to scheduled media, press, and trade group visits, with stringent security measures that kind of make you feel like there’s something to hide. Given how popular Crown Royal is, it would make sense to construct a visiting center and tasting room there, and might even make grey, rainy Winnipeg (presumably there’s good weather there sometimes…) a destination for whisky fans.
The basic story behind Crown Royal is that the whisky was created in 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth toured Canada by train. An entrepreneur decided to craft a “whisky fit for a King,” a tagline the company uses to this day, by blending about 50 different whiskies together. Today, the flagship expression, Crown Royal Deluxe, is still a blend of 50 different whiskies, combining what they call base whiskies and flavoring whiskies. “It’s like baking a cake,” said the brand ambassador at the distillery – essentially you use a whole lot of base whisky and just a little bit of flavoring whisky to get the final product. It’s an interesting concept, and one that really focuses on the importance of the master blender, an important craft that is often ignored by consumers.
Simply put, Crown Royal whisky can be thought of as a blend of bourbon, rye, and malt whiskies. Each distillate has a different formula telling you what recipe it is, what yeast was used, when it was barreled, what type of barrel it was aged in, and in which warehouse it was aged. When the time comes for blending, samples are taken and decisions are made about which barrels to draw from. But the main, and astounding thing – and this is true for any large brewery or distillery, from Budweiser to Jim Beam – is how they get the final product to taste the same year after year after year. Consistency is key.
And what does that consistency taste like? Crown Royal Deluxe was described over and over by the brand ambassador as being “creamy,” and I have to say that’s an appropriate description. It’s a really smooth, easy drinking whisky, slightly on the sweet side, but incredibly mellow and quite tasty. It’s important, especially when coming from a bourbon and rye background, to realize that you are drinking neither bourbon nor rye when you sip Crown Royal, so comparisons don’t really do it any justice. There are, however, exceptions. Crown Royal Black is matured in charred oak barrels and blended at a higher proof, giving it a much more bourbon-like quality than Deluxe. And XO is finished in cognac casks, giving it a nice fruity spice that makes you think of a sherry cask-finished Scotch.
The two newest expressions on the market, released just this year, are the Northern Harvest Rye and Hand Selected Barrel, both of which should be sampled by any serious whisky drinker. The Rye is seriously rye – 90%, to be exact (which differentiates this from Canadian whisky in general, which is often called rye because it has some small percentage of rye in it, unlike American rye which must have at least 51% rye). It’s still smooth, but has a wonderful bite to it along with baking spices that tingle both the palate and the nose. It was just recently named 2016 World Whiskey of the Year in Jim Murray’s Whiskey Bible, the first time a Canadian brand has had that honor bestowed upon it.
The Hand Selected Barrel is a single barrel expression of the Coffey Rye whisky (produced in the Coffey Rye still in Gimli, and one of the flavoring whiskeys found in Deluxe), and is rich and complex with a lovely syrupy mouth-feel that makes it more of a challenging (in a good way) sipping whisky. This expression was originally rolled out in Texas, the state in which Crown Royal is most popular for some reason, where local retailers had purchased barrels. Now it’s available in most major markets across the country, so check with your local liquor store or with Crown Royal directly to see if you can find it in your area.
So what did I learn on my Canadian whisky Crown Royal boot camp? Well, I learned that they don’t really like you to take pictures in many areas of the distillery – apparently grain dust can be more explosive than alcohol vapor. I also learned that even a mammoth distillery is able to keep the spirit, if not necessarily the actual nuts and bolts, of a craft operation (after all, isn’t all distilling a craft?). Finally, I learned how to appreciate Canadian whisky in way that I never have before – at least the quality stuff. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, as new and newly resurgent Canadian brands (Forty Creek, Caribou Crossing, etc.) are slowly entering the lexicon of serious bourbon drinkers. So next time you are thinking about having a dram, why not pour a little from our neighbors to the north, eh?