We’ve reached the end of the year and, in addition to all the holiday festivities, it also happens to be the Annual Whisky Awards Season! If you’re not fully aware of just what that means, like the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, there are numerous drinks groups, magazines and even individuals granting a seemingly endless range of “Best Of” awards spanning a wide-ranging and nearly unfathomable list of categories based on region, style, age (or lack of age) and more. There will be so many “winners” that your head will spin. And each whisky that wins whichever commendation, medal or other grandiose title granted by Organization A will then prominently display their Award in all of their future marketing plans!
One such annual award is linked to the annual publication of a book title, The Whisky Bible, written by Jim Murray, whisky writer and commentator, and perhaps the most polarizing figure within the whisky community. This year, most whisky fans were completely surprised by Mr. Murray’s selection of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye as his Whisky of the Year, the first time a Canadian Whisky has achieved such an honor. Now, no offense intended to our fine Canadian friends, or to the Canadian whisky category as a whole, but I think it is safe to say that this was pretty much an overwhelming surprise to probably everyone who even remotely follows the annual whisky awards.
I will give Mr. Murray some credit, though, about this selection. One of my pet peeves surrounding many of the whisky awards is that the “winners” are often expensive, relatively obscure bottlings issued many years prior to the award year – rendering them frequently cost-prohibitive and nearly unobtainable for the average person. Last year, Murray selected as his Whisky of the Year 2015 the Yamazaki Sherry Cask
2013, a single cask Japanese whisky that, by all accounts, was a superb whisky, albeit practically impossible to find even before being named Whisky of the Year. At least with his selection of the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, Murray has picked a whisky that was released in 2015 AND is a whisky that is both readily available and cost-favorable. With this whisky, almost anyone who wishes to try it can likely both find and afford a bottle, after all, a bottle of the Northern Harvest Rye just runs$28 at my local Total Wine. A whisky of the year that is both affordable and available? ….. that’s good news.
At the same time, despite the pitfalls of these various whisky awards, these winning selections can often shed light on some excellent whiskies – not to mention creating nearly endless fodder for discussion amongst all of us whisky fans who do pay some level of attention!
Now……is the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye the best whisky of the year? Well, that is a whole different issue.
About the Distillery
In all honesty, there is not a lot of truly interesting information about the distillery that produces the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. The Gimli Distillery, located in Gimli, Manitoba near Lake Winnipeg, has no long, glamorous, romantic history. There are no stories of illicit whisky, armed brigands, or Royal visits like those stories so frequently and often “exaggeratedly” retold by the marketing teams about so many Scotch whisky distilleries. Founded in 1968, there is no aura of mysticism surrounding this distillery, it is simply a very modern, physically unappealing, industrial workhorse distillery.
Now owned by Diageo, the Gimli distillery, along with the Crown Royal brand, was acquired when the Seagram portfolio was dissolved in 2000. And much like the MGP distillery in Indiana, Gimli produces no whiskies under its own name, rather the distillery produces bulk distillate that is used in a number of brands (many of which are nearly unknown outside of Canada) such as: 7 Crown, Adam’s, Canadian Hunter, numerous releases of Crown Royal, Five Star, Lord Calvert, Melcher’s Very Mild, Seagram 83 5YO, and VO.
Before we finally get to the review it is important to understand a bit about Canadian whiskey, frequently referred to as “Rye,” because there is a good deal of confusion. Canadian law only requires a whisky have some rye in it to be called a rye. In reality, much of the Canadian whiskey on the market bears more resemblance to bourbon that it does to rye because, like bourbon, it has a high corn content. Part of the reason for the high corn, low rye content is that rye frequently has a lower yield, plus, it is much more difficult to distill.
Davin de Kergommeaux, arguably the foremost expert on Canadian whisky and the author of Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert, first published by McClelland & Stewart in May 2012, wrote a piece on his blog (Canadian Whiskey) about the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. It makes more sense to let the expert take the stage, so here is an excerpt from his article:
From Day One, more than 75 years ago, Crown Royal has remained the quintessential example of the whisky blender’s art. More than 50 different whiskies, all from the Gimli, Manitoba distillery are carefully mingled together to create Crown Royal. Little wonder this is Canada’s best selling whisky.
For Northern Harvest Rye, Crown Royal master blender, Andrew MacKay took a different tack. Still the seamless blend that is the keystone of the Crown Royal range, this whisky prominently features one of those 50 component whiskies. It is still a blend, yes, but 90% of the whisky that goes into this blend is made almost entirely from rye grain.
Rye grain is not like most other grains. Sure, it will thrive in rich agricultural soils to yield the fine spring ryes that bakers love for making bread. However, on the extreme margins of its growing range rye becomes the remarkable whisky grain we have come to love. Here farmers must plant a different rye – rugged winter rye. Winter rye thrives in the most arduous Canadian agricultural zones, places with climates that would kill many other crops. For instance, shortly after they sprout, late in the year, the young rye plants must endure a bitterly cold winter. Spring comes late on Canada’s Prairies and in rye-growing regions the short summer that follows is parched and desert like. The resulting grains are scrawny and twisted with very little starch in them. And though they are not suitable for baking they make the most robustly flavoured whiskies. Parts of Canada and Northern Europe are the only agricultural regions inhospitable enough to grow such flavour-packed rye. This is the grain Crown Royal uses to make its whiskies.
And now that we’ve cleared that up …. on to the review!
Review: Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, Released 2015, 45% abv
Color: Light amber with orange tints
Nose: This starts with a rather delicate rye-floral note, a good dose of black pepper, menthol, fresh leather, a bit of oaky sawdust and very subtle touches of ripe white fruits and vanilla. With water the rye notes become even more subdued and the palate becomes much fruitier and sweeter – almost more bourbon-like than what I expect from a rye. The fruits and a creamy vanilla note become more prominent, while that black peppery spice remains to add some depth.
Taste: The arrival is full of creamy vanilla with a dash of pepper. There is a minty-menthol, subtle ripe red apples and just a very delicate rye spiciness. This is a sweeter, rather than a spicy palate. Water continues to push this to be more “refined” on the palate, lacking some of the sharp, spicy edges that I find appealing in a good rye whiskey.
Finish: The finish is moderate length, fruity-vanilla, delicately oaky, floral and softly spiced with a slightly bitter, tannic ending.
Overall: I can’t help getting the sense that this is a high-rye bourbon rather than a 90% rye whiskey, or perhaps a Scotch Rye, blending Glenmorangie 10 with a rye whiskey to deliver a softly sweet and fruity whisky with a bit of rye spice and floral notes and an undercurrent of black pepper added to the mix. It is balanced, has some complexity, and is elegant in its delicate profile.
Now, I will admit that I went into this half expecting to find this terribly disappointing, but it wasn’t all that bad. In reality, this is a slightly better than average, reasonably good whiskey, offering a very nice foray into Canadian “ryes.” But is the Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye the best whiskey of the year? Not for me. I can honestly say that I have had a number of whiskies that I found far superior to this one – okay, maybe we can call it the best whisky of the year first released this year under $29 USD – that might work!
Distillery: Crown Royal Distillery, Gimli Plant (Diageo), Gimli, Manitoba
Type: Canadian Rye (90% Rye)
Maturation: not disclosed
Availability: Yes, most retailers
Sample Source: My own bottle