Whisky Advocate

Interview with Crown Royal XR LaSalle master blender Andrew MacKay

June 14th, 2012

Lew Bryson, Whisky Advocate managing editor, chats with Crown Royal’s master blender, Andrew MacKay.

When Crown Royal master blender Andrew MacKay was asked to create a second Crown Royal XR bottling, after the XR Waterloo bottling was a success, he thought of the LaSalle distillery, west of Montreal, which is where he learned the whisky business. I spoke to him yesterday about this new, limited bottling.

The new Crown Royal XR LaSalle is blended with whiskies distilled at LaSalle, correct? When did the distillery close, and how old would those whiskies be?

It has whiskies from the LaSalle distillery in it; I wouldn’t want to imply that those are the only whiskies in it. It was shut down completely in 1993; it’s still used as a warehousing site; there are still a few multi-story brick warehouses. That distillery was started in 1924, finished in 1928. People asked, “Why build a distillery in the middle of Prohibition?” [We both laugh.]

The whiskies are obviously from pre-1993, but when we’re putting these blends together, the idea is not to hit an age profile. It’s designed to be a smooth, gentle whisky in your mouth. That creamy character of Crown Royal is there.

You’re going to have aged whiskies in there, and there is continuous, base whisky — which comes off the still with the characteristics of a vodka — and that’s aged in used barrels. If we put that in a new barrel, it would just overwhelm it. But if you have a barrel that had just contained bourbon, and put that vodka in it, it pulls out the fruity aromas and flavors from the wood. That’s part of our arsenal. It’s interesting how the different barrels lend themselves to different whiskies.

The XR takes the LaSalle ryes, and accentuates those rich aged notes, then blends the younger whiskies in to get that creamy Crown Royal character. It’s designed to feel and taste this way. It’s quite distinct from bourbon; it’s quite distinct from Scotch. We try to be very distinctive, and we know we have to make our distillate the best it can be; we can’t just depend on the wood.

How does Crown Royal blend: what ages separately, how long is the mingling, how many steps? Was the blending of the LaSalle XR different in any way from that process?

All the whiskies are aged separately, in individual barrels, different bonds (warehouses). We’re surveying everything at three years of age, and maintaining the library as it ages. Every 8 to 12 months, we’re getting samples. We’ll take all those out of the library, nose them, and guide them back.

The calendar is really a guide – you’re moving backwards and forwards in time. What I’m making today is for ten years from now: these are the whiskies I need to make, these are the barrels to put them into. But I’m also looking back, seeing what I actually have from ten years ago, and how it’s matured. You have to consider the evaporative loss, where it’s produced, the barrels you have, how much they cost.

Planning like that must only get more complex when a brand is as big as Crown Royal, right?

Most people don’t perceive how difficult maintaining a successful blend is. Excess stock is good, you get that richness from the aged whisky. But unmitigated success means you’d better have the older whisky you need. You may even have to go to the open market to get the continuous base whisky. It’s a fascinating game.

And back to the LaSalle XR?

The LaSalle is unique. We were looking for something distinct right off the bat. The Waterloo XR had a distinct flavor: the mealy, doughy, breadlike but not yeasty richness from Waterloo whisky. It could withstand the age of the barrels it was in. If you wait too long, the wood overwhelms the distillate. The Waterloo was able to stave that off. It was a success, and marketing liked the product, so they wanted another. [he laughs]

What happened with the Waterloo…I was blending Crown Royal by then. Mike Connors, the master blender before me, always used Waterloo’s whisky as the gold standard. When they asked me to make a special XR, it was easy: pull samples from Waterloo! But when they came back two years later asking for another, I was on my own. I started looking at the inventory.

If you have a few hundred barrels out of LaSalle that have been sitting there, in terms of blending Crown Royal, that’s a drop in the bucket. But in terms of the XR series, that’s an opportunity. That’s the joy of being able to create something brand new. Once I settled on the LaSalle rye, it was a matter of accentuating the bold spicy notes while blending with enough bourbon [barrel-aged] whiskies and continuous whiskies to get the rich and creamy notes; and on top of that we wound up with a small floral note. The LaSalle is all about that richness, but mixing it up a little.

Where else can you go with the XR series?

Don’t ask me, they haven’t come to me with that one yet! My job is to maintain the Reserve, and the Black, and make sure they will be continuous through time. When they let you create something new it’s a challenge, it lets out that nugget of creativity.

It was great talking to Andrew, but I took the opportunity to tell him, around the time he was explaining the blending process — “moving backwards and forwards in time” — that this was exactly the kind of thing Canadian distillers should be explaining to consumers: exactly why Canadian whisky is the way it is — “We make it this way on purpose,” he said, laughing — and what a painstaking process blending really is. He said he agreed with me completely; now we just have to get through to marketing.

42 Responses to “Interview with Crown Royal XR LaSalle master blender Andrew MacKay”

  1. John Hansell says:

    Andrew’s honesty was very refreshing–to refer to the base whisky in Canadian whisky as having the characteristics of vodka coming off the still. This is the heart of what comprises Canadian whisky, and what makes it so light and refreshing. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It can still be a very good whisky, which this bottling certainly is.

    I also noticed this comment: “it was a matter of accentuating the bold spicy notes while blending with enough bourbon and continuous whiskies to get the rich and creamy notes.” Am I to assume that they are blending a little bourbon in with the Canadian whisky (which they are allowed to do by Canadian law), to give it some extra richness and creaminess?

    • John Hansell says:

      P.S. For those of you who say you don’t like Canadian whisky, I encourage you to give this one a try. It might change your mind. (Price: around $130)

    • sam k says:

      I think he may be referring to bourbon barrel-aged whisky. If indeed they’re using actual bourbon as a component, it would have to come from the States, wouldn’t it? Can it still be called Canadian if they’re mixing in a whiskey from another country?

      Great interview, Lew.

      • John Hansell says:

        Sam, if my memory serves correctly, they can include up to 9.09% of just about anything in Canadian whisky and still call it Canadian whisky.

        Also, I believe it can also be called Canadian whisky, Canadian Rye whisky, or Rye whisky (even if the flavoring whisky isn’t made with rye).

        • tmckenzie says:

          Great article! Since reading Davin’s book, I have a whole new appreciation for Canadian whiskey. When he said bourbon, I figured he was talking about bourbon style whiskey made in Canada.

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Sam’s right; that was an editing drop. Andrew was talking about barrels. I had to cut the interview — we ranged far and wide — and missed that back-reference. If you can fix that, I’d appreciate it.

  2. Wade says:

    Very surprised to see Andrew use the term vodka – as noted it was very honest.

    Sam K – yes, Canadian whiskey can use a small % of whiskey from another country and still be called Canadian Whiskey.

  3. NP says:

    Good piece. The man is honest and straightforward which is very refreshing indeed.

    What’s the proof?

    Note: Not sure that his corporate PR/marketing people will really dig the vodka thing though.
    I have a feeling that him being straight to the point is positive with the whisk(e)y geeks community (most members of which still probably wont shell out 130 on Crown Royal however good it is just because of the brand’s image) but I doubt this kind of argument would unleash an urge to get a bottle with the average consumer (I can see the “What? I am paying $130 for old whisky blended with vodka? For that money I’d rather get a 750ml of the old stuff alone from some other brand.”)

    • John Hansell says:

      WIth the way whisky prices have shot up lately, $130 for a really delicious whisky with some rare whisky in it isn’t unreasonable, but I see your point. Get ten friends together and each can spend $13 for a couple of good slugs of the stuff just to try it out. That’s my recommendation.

      • NP says:

        Yup, I’ll give it a try. Will need something to go along with my weekend reading of Davin de K’s book on the Canadian stuff.

        What’s the ABV of this XR?

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Ha! It’s Canadian whisky, what proof would you guess?!

      80 proof. You’d think it was a law or something, but it’s just tradition. There are a few rare higher-proof Canadians, but this one’s standard.

      • sam k says:

        80 proof is the one thing I dislike most about Canadian whisky. You really would think it’s a law, with their reticence to go any higher, even on premium stuff like this. There have been glints of hope here and there over the years wuth higher proof releases, but they keep coming back to bottling at the absolute minimum.

        I think their heads would explode if someone ever came out with a barrel proof Canadian!

        • NP says:

          80 proof, I totally concur.

          80 proof “law”: just a quick parallel.
          I am at my core a cognac guy and happen to bottle once in a while single cask of the stuff at full proof, trying to recreate the pleasure I have drinking things like the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection I discovered when I moved to the US which I dig.
          When I started this single cask cognac thing, I asked my buddies small distillers in the cognac region of France for advices and feedback: most of those guys – who are not all 70yrs old btw- and whose families have been making cognac for generations, are indeed under the impression that 80 proof is the law and that one can’t bottle anything above this “limit”.

          That’s the weight of habits, doing the same thing over and over again, asking oneself less and less questions about why one is doing this or that.
          Habits kill innovation and makes one category sleepy and overlooked/under-known.

          Put on the market some Canadian stuff that is a) well made and b) not at a “commercial proof” and I can assure you I will buy it (and at the pace at which I drink, it might be more than a one bottle deal…).

          • sam k says:

            Thanks, NP. Cognac is another spirit I enjoy and admire greatly, and it’s another place that 80 proof is not preferred. Give us what we want…what we deserve!

            I am with you 100%.

        • Smithford says:

          Maybe it’s just a case of zigging when everyone else is zagging. There is no shortage of cask/barrel strength whiskies coming from Scotland or USA (or Taiwan for that matter). Perhaps Canadian distillers are quite happy to keep with their tradition. It seems to be working. Despite meagre ABVs, Canadian whiskey is enjoying something of a small renaissance after a few decades of wallowing in mediocrity.

          • sam k says:

            Yeah, yeah. It would be a much bigger and more roundly embraced renaissance if they didn’t insist on sticking to the legal minimum.

  4. Jamie says:

    Vodka, yes that’s what I noticed in Seagrams products so it doesn’t surprise me. But you wouldn’t notice it in a Crown Royal blend I don’t think.

  5. Lew Bryson says:

    Andrew was indeed being painfully, manfully honest about the “vodka,” but it is barrel-aged — unlike actual vodka — and it is a blend. As he said, “It’s designed to feel and taste this way.” The grain whisky that goes in blended scotch isn’t terribly different. (NP, I’m also reading Davin’s book, and enjoying it immensely; we have a review planned for the blog soon.)

    Andrew welcomed the chance to talk straightly to our readers; it was clear that he was enjoying talking about the details for a change in what was obviously a whole morning of press interviews.

  6. iskch1 says:

    Excellent report John. Great to hear more information about the C.R XR version.

  7. Scribe says:

    Lew, I echo others’ thoughts here — great interview! Appreciated the subject matter as well as the format…very interesting to read it through the words of a notable who merits such attention through editorial like this.

    Some of the commentary encouraged me to look up “Canadian whiskey,” to see if I could find any references to the “vodka” issue. Didn’t find that, per se, but did find interesting data on wikipedia…which I share here just FYI for the community:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_whisky

    Given some of the posters’ experience, many already may know this — or contributed to the write-up, given the nature of wikipedia! :)

    Keep the article like this coming…very informative and a nice read!

    Scribe

  8. Tadas says:

    $130 for a bottle of aged vodka with flavorings. Kid of steep in my opinion because it is quite easy to replicate the taste – it is mostly made from pure deflavorized alcohol. I’ll pass :D

    • John Hansell says:

      I don’t think a whisky of this quality can be easily replicated. If you don’t want it, I’m sure there will be people who will. (That includes me!)

      I guess you don’t drink blended scotch either (which is made mostly of grain whisky)? The concept is similar. And even though they can, no one has come out and said there’s any flavoring in this particilar whisky. All I know is that it tastes really good.

      • Red_Arremer says:

        So does Scottish grain whisky actually taste like vodka coming off the stills?

        • Lew Bryson says:

          I’ve never actually tasted either distillate off the still, Red; at such high proof, that probably wouldn’t be a great idea anyway. But Scottish whisky regulations allow grain to come off the final distillation at a maximum proof of 94.8%, which is pretty close to vodka. Do they actually distill to that high a proof? I couldn’t tell you. I can tell you that we have an article on grain whisky from Dave Broom coming in the next issue, and much of what the Scottish blenders had to say about how they use it sounds a lot like what Andrew MacKay said in this interview.

        • John Hansell says:

          Red, maybe a more appropriate comparison would be to taste Scottish grain whisky and the base component of Canadian whisky after aging for X years in similar barrels?

          • Red_Arremer says:

            I look forward to the Dave Broom article. Makes me wonder how much could be done simply wood aging actual vodka.

      • Tadas says:

        Crown Royal XR is an excellent aged vodka flovoured with whisky from LaSalle distillery and bourbon. I do not understand why everybody is so afraid and defensive to use word aged vodka if it is actually aged vodka.

        By Canadian regulations, any grain/cereal spirit distilled up to 96% ABV aged for at least 3 year in wood with additional flavoring (that can be any type of spirit, wine, imported or domestic, plus caramel) making up to 9.09% of the whole volume can be called Canadian whisky.
        It pretty much means that any flavoured (or not) 3 year wood aged vodka is a whisky. Even Southern Comfort if it was aged and made in Canada would be whisky :D

        http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/regulations/C.R.C.,_c._870/section-B.02.020.html
        http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/regulations/SI-2009-61/page-2.html

        • John Hansell says:

          If we are calling the base whisky aged vodka, then we also could stick the same label on Compass Box Hedonism and Greenore Irish whisky. I like them all: Hedonism, Greenore, and Crown Royal. Bottom line: does it taste good?

          • Tadas A. says:

            My thinking is – if majority of the content in the bottle is aged vodka, why not call it and label it what it is. (To that extent I am surprised that vodka makers did not go that path for premium vodkas.) If somebody mixes 9% of flavoring in a drink, it becomes a liqueur in reality. Think about how much difference in taste makes just a dash of Angostura or Peychaud’s in a cocktail (and for the better).
            But I agree with you John on taste. If a drink is a blend of different ingredients or a drink made from 100% low proof distillation whiskey, each can be good tasting.

          • Lew Bryson says:

            I think we may be focusing too much on the “aged vodka” terminology. All Andrew was saying was that it initially has those characteristics…but afterwards it’s much different. After all, “aged vodka” wouldn’t really mean much, and — I’m pretty sure — not even be allowed on a label under the federal definitions. Given that we’re agreeing on the concept that it can make a great-tasting whisky…where’s the issue?

          • Tadas A. says:

            I do not think pure alcohol (GNS) can ever become a whiskey. It does not have any grain characteristics. And adding flavoring whiskey or wine in it, should not make a whiskey out of it either.

          • Tadas A. says:

            And you are right about the laws in US. You cannot not call it “aged vodka” in US. Legal name would be:
            “Grain spirits” – are neutral spirits distilled from a fermented mash of grain and stored in oak containers.

  9. Mark says:

    Can we expect a formal review at some point John?

  10. Lew Bryson says:

    I’ll be reviewing it in the next issue, Mark.

  11. Gary Gillman says:

    Interesting, not really a lot of surprises but it is always good to see how each company approaches the blending task. Michael Jackson wrote back in the 80′s that in his opinion, an oaky character was characteristic of Seagram’s Canadian whisky and I think that really hasn’t changed despite the various line extensions.

    I was hoping to see some discussion of what the non-base continuous whisky or whiskies are in this product.

    Is it straight bourbon or straight rye brought in from the U.S.?

    Is it whiskies made in Canada but in that style? Is it both?

    Assuming Seagram distills in Canada a batch whisky or more than one as the flavouring whisky element (and I believe they do), why does the company not sell such spirits unblended with base continuous whiskies?

    Gary

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Hello, Gary! I can’t say for sure if they are all Canadian or partially U.S. whiskies in the blend, but I inferred that they were all Canadian…like I said, can’t say for sure. However, your last question is the kicker, and as near as we can tell, it’s because that’s not what they do. To infer again, it may also be a matter of supply. You would NOT want to short a blend like CR, or even raise the possibility.
      We’ll be asking more questions about Canadian whisky in the coming months; stay tuned.

  12. Gary Gillman says:

    Okay thanks Lew, appreciate it. Given he didn’t refer to the flavoring whiskies, I would think these form a relatively small, but presumably essential, part of the palate of this and other Seagram whiskies. My sense was – again just from these snippets – that they view the vodka-like base as the most important part, as modified to be sure by woody flavors imparted by different kinds of barrels and their age (and location in this case of this new product).

    It was interesting too that he said if necessary they will obtain base spirit from another company (the “open market”).

    Gary

    • Lew Bryson says:

      Not sure I see that, Gary; the whiskies from LaSalle were flavoring whiskies. I also didn’t get that they view the base as the most important; more like the canvas on which they make the picture, and I don’t know many artists who consider the canvas more important than the paint. I felt more like he was taking pains to explain that the base whisky wasn’t simply raw alcohol that they dumped in the mix to stretch the flavoring whiskies.

      I’m not clear on what the proportions are, and I’m sure it’s proprietary. But curiosity drives me.

  13. Gary Gillman says:

    Ah, good points. I can see now that perhaps he was referring to LaSalle flavoring whisky when he said “rye”. Based on my own tasting of various Seagram Canadian whiskies – I haven’t tried the new product – I’d say the continuous whiskies, to use his term, have the main say in the flavour, and I thought he was saying that too, but perhaps not. Good to read again of their blending approach and look forward to any further information that you may obtain in this area, fascinating.

    Gary

  14. Tadas says:

    Actually there is one bottling of Canadian whisky that is bottled at proof close to barrel/cask strength. It is Canadian Heritage 21 years old from 1976. Proof is a whopping 120 (60% ABV)!
    http://whiskycorner.blogspot.com/2009/06/canadian-heritage-21-years-old-60.html

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