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.
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.