Accounting for a quarter of Canadian whisky sold overseas, Crown Royal is the best-selling whisky in the nation’s history. With its distinctive presentation in a velvet bag, the rye whisky is sometimes dismissed by connoisseurs as a triumph of marketing over substance, but a slew of awards suggests that negative perceptions about Canadian whisky, rather than Crown Royal itself, might be to blame.
A Regal History
Crown Royal was conceived by Seagram distillers to mark the first visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Canada in 1939, and was placed on the royal train that crossed the nation. The inaugural blend was the work of Sam Bronfman, a distilling legend who also created Chivas Regal. To give the whisky its regal flourish, the stopper was shaped like a crown and the bottle presented in a purple velvet bag with a gold drawstring.
Until 1964, Crown Royal was sold only in Canada. While the velvet bag remains the whisky’s unique calling card, the brand has diversified, releasing several custom-made varieties from the distillery in Gimli, on Lake Winnipeg. These include Reserve, which is aged longer; XO, which is finished in cognac casks; and XR (Extra Rare), using pre-1993 inventory from the now-closed distillery at LaSalle in Montreal. Each version comes in its own color bag. Black, for example, which is matured in charred oak barrels and has a higher proof and fuller body than Classic, comes in a black bag.
In 2014, Crown Royal released a single-barrel whisky for the first time, a 51.5 percent ABV nectar made from Coffey Rye, one of the 50 whiskies that make up the original Crown Royal blend. Aged for 7 years, the 2014 edition uses a high-rye mash brewed in a copper still. Curiously, the single-barrel version is available only in Texas, the single biggest market for the velvet bag.
Even though rye whisky suggests a harsh, bitter character, Crown Royal is defined by a smooth and creamy finish that is sometimes compared with condensed milk. Oak and vanilla flavors are at the forefront, with peaches faintly present. The whisky has a rich, amber color and lingering finish.
Crucially, Crown Royal is not a rye whisky in the American sense. While American rye whiskey has to be at least 51 percent rye grain, Crown Royal is a blend of corn, rye, wheat and barley grains, aged in oak casks that once housed bourbon, whisky or wine. Effectively, Crown Royal is a blend of corn whisky, using Manitoba corn, which provides the sweet, nutty essence, and other grains. Whereas American rye whiskey tends to blend the grains first before mashing, Canadian rye mashes the individual grains first, then blends them as spirits, giving much more control over flavor.
Once blended, Crown Royal spends 8 years in the cask and emerges 80 proof or 40 percent ABV.
Arguably the best way to enjoy any whisky is neat or over ice, both of which allow the drinker to appreciate Crown Royal’s complex aromas. Otherwise, this is an unpretentious spirit, despite its origins, which the distiller actively promotes as the base of numerous cocktails. Mix 2 parts Crown Royal with 1 part vermouth for a Manhattan cocktail, served with a maraschino cherry, or dilute it with ginger ale and enjoy it on the rocks.