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Canada Joins the Show: single barrel Crown Royal at 51.5%

January 6th, 2015

Single malt producers do it routinely and so do America’s bourbon makers. Until now, however, no major Canadian whisky distillery has ever released a single barrel whisky. Finally, as 2014 drew to a close, Crown Royal became Canada’s first major brand to do so. To top that, each hand-selected barrel is bottled at a healthy 51.5% ABV. A whisky year already brimming with encouraging developments in the Great White North concludes with the Canadian whisky story of the year.

Crown Royal Single Barrel Whisky is more than simply a high-strength rendition of the standard bottling we are all familiar with. About 50 different mature whiskies are used to create that blend. One of these is the ultra-flavorful “Coffey Rye,” and it is this Coffey Rye that the brand has chosen to bottle for its single barrel program.

The liquid itself is everything you’d expect from hand-selected barrels, though at first sip you’ll not recognize it as Crown Royal. Still, if you have tried Crown Royal Monarch you already have an inkling of what Coffey Rye tastes like. It is the heart of that 75th anniversary blend.

Since it was first created in 1939, the secret of Crown Royal’s success has been the meticulous mingling of several dozen individual whiskies produced at the distillery. Each makes its own contribution to what many consider the most complex, balanced, and smoothest of Canadian whiskies. If Crown Royal De Luxe displays the elegance of a prima ballerina, Coffey Rye is its muscular NHL-enforcer cousin.

The distillery at Gimli under the blue Manitoba sky

Unlike most Canadian whisky, Coffey Rye begins with a high-rye mash bill rather than a single grain. It is distilled to low ABV in an ancient copper Coffey still that was brought in from the defunct Waterloo distillery. Winters are long and cold in Gimli, Manitoba, where Crown Royal is made, so master blender Andrew MacKay leaves the Coffey Rye spirit in virgin oak bourbon barrels for seven years where it slowly absorbs their lusty flavors. On a recent visit to the distillery I tasted whisky from three of these barrels, and the differences among them were remarkable, varying from succulent butterscotch, through spices, to hard, brittle rye.

Rollout began in late November, in Texas, where liquor stores snapped up the first 519 barrels. Each barrel is exclusive to a single retailer. While there are no barrel numbers on the labels, if you are looking for a particular batch, a medallion around the neck of each bottle notes the retail outlet it was bottled for. Distribution will expand to include fourteen states beginning in February. But Canada’s reputation for keeping its best whisky at home has been dashed: it’s still fingers crossed that Crown Royal Single Barrel will be released in Canada at all.

There’s more. Interest in Crown Royal and Canadian whisky in general has grown to the point where something else that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible is about to become reality. Work is well underway on a visitor’s center, which will open later this winter at the Gimli distillery. Along with production overviews and a history of the brand itself, the center illustrates the story of the Coffey still and its inventor, Aeneas Coffey, and ends in the still house. Visits must be booked in advance and are restricted to groups. Details of minimum group size and how to arrange a tour will be announced once the center opens.

Rye whisky lovers have something very special to look forward to on that tour. Manager Dwayne Koslowski tells you that chocolate bananas are the signature aromas of Coffey Rye, then takes you inside where the first thing you notice is those very smells. Then, as you walk past the large column stills toward the glistening Coffey still at the far end, the scents of cloves and typical rye spices waft in. “We try to keep as much of these aromas as possible in the spirit,” says Koslowski, clearly enjoying the fragrance as much as his visitors.

Suggested retail price for Crown Royal Single Barrel Whisky (the label says “Hand Selected Barrel”) is $55.00.

Disclosure: Davin de Kergommeaux was invited to Gimli to select a barrel of Coffey Rye. He did not receive any compensation for this opinion.

52 Responses to “Canada Joins the Show: single barrel Crown Royal at 51.5%”

  1. Jordan says:

    While it would be nice if they would put barrel numbers on the label, this otherwise looks like a slam-dunk for whiskey geeks – decent proof rye that’s not insanely expensive (in this day and age). Hopefully this will find its way out of Texas as well.

    Just to check, are all of the barrels seven years old when they’re bottled?

  2. Lee Hollenbeck says:

    Which 14 states? Here in MA? More info please.

    • DavindeK says:

      In response to Lee Hollenbeck’s question, the folks at Crown Royal responded that distribution will expand to key Crown Royal markets later in the year.

  3. Automatic says:

    Hand selected!

  4. DavindeK says:

    These barrels were selected from a number of bonds that were distilled 7 years ago.

    Which 14 states? I am not sure yet but will post here when I know. It’s just that people have been hard to reach over Christmas and now everyone is catching up.

    By the way, unlike most Canadian whisky, Coffey Rye is made using a mash bill: 64% corn, 31.5% rye, and 4.5% barley malt.

    • sku says:

      So it’s “rye” in the Canadian sense that all whiskey is rye? The mashbill is more similar to an American bourbon.

      • DavindeK says:

        Yes, all whisky that has the typical flavors of rye is called rye up here. The still itself makes a huge contribution to the flavor. At the same distillery, they also make another whisky that they colloquially call “bourbon” – and that’s exactly what it tastes like. They use the very same mash bill, but distil it in a beer still instead. There are so many more variables in creating flavor than just the mash bill and backward engineering from the mash bill can be misleading unless all the other variables are held constant. And on top of that, rye grain grown on the Canadian Prairies is extra spicy too.

        • Sam Komlenic says:

          Yes, but to offhandedly refer to corn-based spirit as “rye” does a disservice to the (non-Canadian) drinker, not to mention the geekdom, regardless of the resulting flavor profile.

          I’m wondering if it’s not time for Canadian distillers to establish standards of identity so that “rye” and other spirit types are defined for the benefit of the consumer.

          This sounds like a good whisky regardless. Thanks, Davin!

          • DavindeK says:

            Hi Sam,

            There are good reasons why Canadian whisky is called rye and has been, continuously, for over 200 years. That said, I agree, it would be so much simpler, in this day and age, if we just called it Canadian whisky. There is a regulation that defines what can be called Canadian whisky or rye and it includes flavor as a criterion.

            I am not sure that changing or tightening any regulations would change anything on the ground. On labels yes, but not in common usage. Actually, in Canada, most labels already state “Canadian Whisky Canadien,” not rye. Still, rye is a word in the Canadian lexicon that means whisky.

            Canada used to have a huge bourbon industry. About 50 years ago we agreed to stop selling “bourbon” leaving that exclusively to the US. Nevertheless, Gimli, and several other Canadian distilleries still produce masses of whisky that the distillery staff still call bourbon, and which tastes like American bourbon.

            We can change the rules and regulations but we can’t force people to change their vernacular vocabularies. It’s like trying to convince the British and Europeans that the game they call football is really soccer.

            Anyway I am very excited about the new single barrel Crown Royal. The game is changing rapidly for Canadian whisky and a bottling such as this from a major distiller is unprecedented. Fortunately, the flavor, whatever we call it, also breaks new ground for Canadian whisky.

  5. ChrisB says:

    Uh oh! Is this finally a case of a limited edition Canadian whisky that is not available in Canada? Say it ain’t so!

    • George Jetson says:

      There are many such examples; Bush Pilot Private Reserve is probably the most notorious.

  6. Wayne Parker says:

    Sounds like a whiskey similar to a bourbon…

  7. Wayne Parker says:

    Virginia ABC please acquire this whiskey, I’m interested…

    • Justin Martin says:

      No kidding.. I am sick of how our state-managed selection of already-expensive whiskey continues to see price hikes. Even one more choice that’s priced under $60 (for everyone else) is better than nothing.

  8. Jason says:

    This is very exciting! I have been waiting for the distilleries to get on with releasing some of their fantastic flavouring whiskies – themselves, rather than just independent bottlers. Though it does expand the category (and perhaps change it), on a whisky connoisseur level I think this is what we all hope for. Really nice to see this from Crown Royal.

  9. paddockjudge says:

    Davin, many thanks to you and Dave Broom for your strong voices, positive recommendations, and continued support for the Canadian Whisky Industry and the innovations which now are bringing exciting products to the market place.

    Change does not come easily, but it has come and it is only a matter of time before the whisky enthusiasts of Canada will sample a higher proof and single barrel expression “that just a few years ago would have seemed impossible”.

    A ‘tip of the hat’ to the Whisky Advocate Team.
    Wishing you a Happy and Prosperous New Year.

    pj

  10. DavindeK says:

    Thank you, pj.
    Yes, Dave tasted this when he was at the distillery in May and I have no doubt his enthusiasm played a big part in their decision to release it as single barrel whisky, and at higher proof than normal.

  11. Andrew says:

    From all of us here in Canada, we’re glad you’re sending all that nasty, high proof, single barrel crap to another country, why would we want to drink unfiltered dreck? 40% please, with extra caramel!

    • Gary says:

      I’ve got some Black Velvet Toasted Caramel at an even smoother 70 proof, which I would gladly trade for the unfiltered dreck! 😉

      While in Michigan over the holiday, I made a trip to Windsor solely for the privilege of picking up the CC Chairman’s Reserve 100% Rye, so I’m super excited to see this release coming to the US! Can’t wait to try it!

    • Danny Maguire says:

      If all you want is 40% with added caramel I can send you some co-op single malt, it’s got so much caramel you could stand a spoon up in it.

  12. What about Caribou Crossing?
    Wasn’t that the first single-barrel Canadian Whisky produced by a major whisky company since the 19th century?

  13. DavindeK says:

    Well, not really. Bush Pilot’s Reserve was the first of any note, in the 1990s; Caribou Crossing came later, but both are sourced whiskies. Crown Royal is the first Canadian distiller to bottle single barrel whisky.

    • George Jetson says:

      Although not a U.S. Only release, I believe Cape Breton gets that honor Davin.

  14. Sam Komlenic says:

    Since there is not a “reply” link below your response to my previous comment, I’ll leave it here.

    It is not my intent to try to change the will of the Canadian people, only to clarify exactly what is in a glass when someone pours me a “rye” whiskey. Anyone who is not a Canadian citizen expects there to be a majority of rye in rye whiskey. “Coffey rye” anywhere but in Canada would not, should not be called “rye.”

    It’s as if every American whiskey were to be referred to as bourbon regardless of whether the main grain is corn, rye, wheat, or whatever. That would be fine for the locals who understand the nuances, but everyone else would be totally confused. The discriminating consumer wants cogent information, not a colloquial name with no relevant meaning.

    • paddockjudge says:

      We Canadians didn’t hear anyone complain about our rye during Prohibition. Thanks for keeping it ‘Straight’, Sam.

      • Sam Komlenic says:

        I specifically remember 1978 as the first time I heard the term “rye” applied to Canadian whisky in general and I was confused even then.

        Doubtless we were ever grateful for your cool-headedness just across the river/border in the 20s-30s!

    • DavindeK says:

      Thank you Sam.

      Perhaps I over-emphasized the term “Coffey Rye” since it does not appear anywhere on the front label or on the front of the box. It is there in fine print on the back label, and its use in Canada is explained on the back of the box.

      The whisky itself is called “Hand Selected Barrel,” as I stated in the last sentence of the piece.

      • Sam Komlenic says:

        I appreciate the clarification, Davin. Thanks!

        I still want try this once (if) the PLCB gets some.

  15. Ric Myers says:

    Bought a bottle yesterday at Total Wine and More for 50 dollars. Left with my son as an early birthday present but we did a half a shot each for a taste and I loved it. I should have went back and got a bottle for myself as there were 3 more bottles on the shelf. I don’t think anybody would be disappointed if you bought a bottle but don’t get priced gouged, just my take.

  16. Thomas McKenzie says:

    Let’s get geeky now. You say made in a coffey still. Are we talking true Coffey still with stripper and rectifier? So basically it’s a bourbon mashbill, but on a Coffey still, they can pick a draw point where the rye spice is the most concentrated I would think. And that bourbon they make on a beer still is a true KY style beer still and probably is not doubled and makes damn fine bourbon. Am I right? I hope they release that bourbon too.

    • DavindeK says:

      Yes, the Coffey still has a stripper and a rectifier. I am not sure how they have tuned the still but I do know that all the spirit they make in the Coffey still is used for Coffey rye.

      For the bourbon-style whisky, I can’t recall seeing a doubler, just the beer still itself. As far as it being “damn fine bourbon,” I have not tasted anything from Gimli that was ready to be released as single barrel corn whisky. What I have tasted was very flavorful, and very bourbon-like.

      The Coffey Rye is very special whisky and as whisky lovers we should be grateful to see it bottled. However, given the large number of super-flavorful bourbons available today I am not sure that there would be much interest beyond us geeks in a “bourbon-like,” whisky from Canada.

  17. Gary Gillman says:

    Sam, on top of what Davin said (all of which I endorse), you might consider that since a straight-type rye is the keynote flavouring of much Canadian whisky, that justifies it being called “rye”.

    I haven’t tried one of the single barrels, would like to, but currently tasting the Monarch CR just released in Ontario, which I understand uses a larger amount of Coffey rye (and perhaps other straight-type whiskies) than any other CR to date save these single barrels being sold in Texas.

    It is very good, a subtle blending where you have to focus to make out the components but the effort is rewarded. The result is nothing like a straight in U.S. terms, but more like CR taken to a higher level than heretofore. You can taste the Coffey in the steely aftertaste but it is blended well in a sweetish palate to resemble nothing so much as a fine brandy. Top of the line CR, I wish the standard CR was like this. It commemorates the whisky when first released in 1939 for the Royal Tour of Canada and I’m starting to wonder if that first whisky Sam made (the other Sam :)) was this formulation.

    Gary

  18. Sam Komlenic says:

    Gary, I always appreciate your perspective, but to justify calling Canadian whisky “rye” because of the main flavoring component would be like calling some scotches “sherry” for the same reason.

    It remains confusing to most non-Canadian whisky drinkers.

  19. Davindek says:

    I heard a good comparison at the Victoria Whisky Festival. A prominent distiller said “Imagine if curry chicken had to be at least 51% curry.” lol

  20. Gary Gillman says:

    Well Sam, you know, history is history. It’s a terminology that has evolved and it’s not a huge burden for non-Canadians to learn it. Non-Scots seem quite okay with the arcana of first-fill barrels, grain whisky [isn’t all whisky from grain?], hoggies, etc. Rye as the keynote is not quite the same by the way as sherry being an accent for malt whisky since not all malts had the sherry notes and they manifested in different ways depending on the brand.

    Even given the present plethora of new releases, some of which are 100% rye distilled at a low proof, some of which are blends with a heavy element of the latter, I’d leave the terminology as is. It’s either rye or Canadian whisky, alternatively. The distinction from straight rye (American-style) is clear enough due to the term straight for this type of rye.

    Gary

  21. Willyk says:

    I found a bottle at Goody Goody here in Texas. They said they had bought some casks just for their stores, and it had a medallion with their name on it, but the description says it is from the Coffey.

    I have to say it lives up to, really exceeds, Davin’s review. My simple review is that it is delicious, and tastes like nothing else on the market. I hope CR stays with the program, but I wonder how much they can afford sell in this format if it is also a critical ingredient to their mainline product. I am setting aside another bottle just in case!

  22. Jim Petkovic says:

    Would love to add this to my Crown Royal collection, however I’ve been unsuccessful in finding it. Even the larger retailers out of Chicago, etc never heard of it. I live in Ohio and would like to purchase a few bottles.
    Any suggestions?
    Thanks

  23. Jeremy Hentges says:

    Jim ,
    I’m an account mgr for Crown in Iowa…just got word yesterday that 2nd round if allocations in barrels are coming out soon with them delivering this spring….I’d bet Chicago area will get some..if not maybe some Quad Cites IA Hy-vees maybe this spring around May….about 2-3 hours away from Chi-Town..looks like great product..we’re excited to try it here.

  24. Jeremy Hentges says:

    Jim, Ohio will also get some this spring.

  25. DeeDee Hollyfield says:

    A friend sent me two bottles from Texas. I thought each bottle would have a tag but they weren’t included. Will the other bottles have the bottle tags once it expands to the other states?

    • Kenneth Hoffman says:

      DeeDee, my wife & son went to Texas & bought me a case for my birthday. You have to ask for the medallions to get them.

  26. Gary Gillman says:

    Revisiting the thread as I’ve had a chance to taste it now. With due allowances for what different barrelling produce, I’d say this is somewhat in the Whistlepig space despite being a “bourbon” mash. Minty, oaky in a similar way (only light puffs of barrel char), with strawberry or other light fruit notes. It reminds me too of the original Michter’s Original Sour Mash. Unquestionably straight in character but in a more retrained way than Kentucky straight rye or bourbon. I’d think climate explains this, primarily, although it would be interesting to know the barrel entry proof for the Manitoba and Alberta straight whiskeys – it might be higher than 125 and this might explain some of the difference in character to American straights.

    But all this to say, very good stuff and it has the Crown Royal stamp too, you can connect it to the other CR iterations even though the low-proof Coffey distillate is a minor component of those. This must be a product of the yeast, I’d think, more than anything else. A column still is a column still and given this CR signature has been distilled in widely separated geographic points in Canada, it can’t be “terroir” either.

    Gary

  27. Gary Gillman says:

    I probably should clarify that of course a continuous still can comprise one or more columns + (in some cases) a doubler stage. I am not saying the Coffey still used to produce this single barrel CR rye is the same as the beer still used in Gimli to produce a “bourbon”. I am saying in my view, the new distillate’s flavour and characteristics should be the same whether the Coffey is operated in Ontario, Quebec or Manitoba and this is because the fermented mash characteristics determine what goes into the still – in this sense a still is a still. And the yeast will be a large part of that flavour.

    Gary

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Second comment is well-taken, Gary (the first as well!): I agree that when talking about column stills, “a still is a still” much more so than with pots. While there is some variance from how the still is run, when using column stills, the other variables — mashbill, yeast, post-primary distillation, and everything affecting aging — all become that much more influential.

      • Gary Gillman says:

        Thanks Lew, and I can only fully agree in turn.

        It’s very good (net net) and I wish I could taste multiple barrels.

        Gary

  28. Kristian Littmann says:

    Is the coffey still the same model of still used by Nikka for its Coffey Grain and Coffey Barley whiskies? Those are both amazing!

  29. Greg Smith says:

    Concord, NC Now carries this. Fantastic! I picked up a bottle. I think I got the first bottle sold there. It is good whiskey. My favorite of all time was the cask 16. Personally I like this single barrel much more than other Crowns. But then I am a bourbon enthusiasts. It should sell very well here.

  30. Bristol, TN here. We are getting our single barrel of Crown delivered this Friday, June 19. Can’t wait to taste it! Three barrels were sold in upper East Tennessee. We got one of them. One was sold in Johnson City, TN and another in Kingsport, TN

  31. George Jetson says:

    With all of the hub bub here and with Davin’s suggestion on his own site, I picked up a bottle from Spec’s last night. The first sip was the most muscular slap from a CW ever. I totally agree with your analysis Davin, on first impression it doesn’t even resemble CW, let alone Crown Royal. Then as I got used to the intensity, more than a bit of the CR Monarch provenance came out. Hard to imagine using the words intensity and CR in the same sentence, but it’s true.

    In terms of marketing, Spec’s flagship store in downtown Houston has the actual barrel they purchased set up in the aisle way with bottles in and out boxes stacked on top. They are also selling the empty barrel if you want it. All of the bottles on display have the identity medallions around the neck. The one I bought off of the shelf also had a medallion. At the bottom it is stamped “Made For Texas”. Hmmm, do you think 8 years ago the distillery manager said to himself “let’s run that Coffey Still and barrel up some whisky for all our Lone Star friends”?

  32. JMOT says:

    3 different barrels are in the Milwaukee Market, Woodmans (closest to Chicago is in Kenosha), Discount Liquor, and the Otto’s chain.

    Bottles hit the shelves this week, enjoy!!

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