Interview with Crown Royal XR LaSalle master blender Andrew MacKay
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.
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.