Crown Royal is the poster child for Canadian whiskey. The most popular on the American market and with some slick branding, it certainly makes a splash on the liquor store shelves. Despite its fame and ubiquity, though, I’d never tried it before… and had no idea what I was in for when I brought a bottle home.
The Seagram company started as a Canadian distillery in 1857 and grew to become one of the biggest spirits companies in Canada. During prohibition in the United States, the owners of the company reportedly participated in bootlegging operations to bring their product into the US, and as a result paid $1.5 million in fines in 1930 (significantly less than the $60 million the US government asked for, it should be noted).
Post-prohibition, once again able to do business unimpeded in the United States, the Seagram corporation decided to create a couple new brands of whiskey to satiate the American market. The two brands they developed were Seagram’s 5 Crown and Seagram’s 7 Crown.
Why were they named that? Well… that remains a mystery, actually. There are a number of apocryphal stories, but nothing that I’d pin my reputation on.
Production of both spirits declined sharply during World War II, and by the end the war had claimed another casualty: the less popular 5 Crown variety of Seagram’s whiskey was no longer produced. However, the 7 Crown version survived and would eventually go on to be one of the most successful whiskies of the 1970s, being the first product to sell 300 million cases in 1983.
In 1939, Seagram president Samuel Bronfman decided to introduce a version of Canadian rye whiskey to honor the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Canada. The brand was successful in Canada, but wouldn’t cross the border to the neighbor to the south until 1964. Since then, the whiskey has earned a solid following and remains the best selling Canadian whiskey in the United States.
The company wouldn’t last, however — in the early 2000’s, the various divisions of the company were carved out and sold to larger beverage manufacturers. The mixers division was sold to Coca Cola, who still produces them under the Seagram’s name. As for Crown Royal, that whiskey is still produced in Canada at their Gimli plant (famous for the glider incident).
Despite being a rye whiskey, this actually starts as a grain bill of 64% corn, 31.5% rye, and 4.5% malted barley. The grain mash is fermented, distilled in one of their twelve continuous distillation stills, and aged in a mixture of new and re-used charred oak barrels. Once the whiskey is aged, it is bottled and shipped off for distribution.
The bottle looks like a perfume container, with multiple facets cut into the bottle to make it sparkle and stand out on the shelf. It’s got a wide shoulder with a slender waist, almost in the shape of a heart. The bottle tapers quickly at the shoulder to a short neck, and the whole package is topped with a plastic gold-colored screw-on top.
For the full size version of this product, there’s a felt bag that the bottle ships in, adding some class and mystery to the packaging. (Or perhaps to hide their Canadian shame. Who knows.)
Right off the bat, this smells like Aunt Jemima syrup with some cinnamon and maybe some nutmeg mixed in. It smells thick and sweet with a bit of a spicy kick.
Surprisingly, the flavor doesn’t necessarily follow the aroma. It’s much thinner than I expected, and none of that sweetness seems to have followed.
The flavor itself starts out as almost an almond nutty profile, and then suddenly the intense peppery spice rolls in and takes over. It’s definitely a rye all right, and that peppery-ness lingers well beyond the end of the liquid.
Something else that lingers, though, is an unpleasant bitterness that comes around the end of the taste. It’s the same flavor that I get from straight grain spirits, and if I wanted that I’d have grabbed some Kentucky Deluxe.
With a little bit of ice, things tone down to a reasonable level. As usual, the bolder flavors have faded slightly and allowed the more delicate notes to shine.
The peppery spice is less of a punch in the face and more of a pleasant attribute. There’s also some vanilla coming through and some citrus that was covered up before, which is now working its way to the forefront.
Unfortunately, though, that bitter grain alcohol flavor is still present at the end of the flavor profile… but at least it’s slightly reduced in strength.
Cocktail (Old Fashioned)
So far, I’m not a fan of this spirit but the old fashioned cocktail shows a glimmer of hope for redemption.
In terms of the flavor, the bitters and the orange help deal with some of the unpleasant flavors that I’d encountered in the other versions. The grain alcohol bitterness is pretty much covered up and disappeared, which is an improvement. What’s left is the peppery spice that comes through nicely, and the vanilla notes that pair well with the rest of the components.
That said, it’s still nothing to write home about.
Normally, I get a bit excited when I’m reviewing a rye and I hit the mule portion of the test. This time I found myself disappointed.
The things I look for in a good mule rye are the peppery spice being able to make itself known over the ginger beer, and some complimentary flavors as well. In this case, there’s a bit of pepper but not nearly enough to cut through the sweetness and the ginger beer. There’s also a bit of vanilla, but there’s also that grain alcohol bitterness making an appearance as well.
It’s just not very good.
There’s really nothing that you get from this blended rye that you can’t get elsewhere better. And, in some instances, cheaper. Our reference bourbon is Bulleit, and they make a rye that’s typically available for $1 less than a bottle of Crown Royal — and doesn’t have the same issues that are in this product.
I get the feeling that the other expressions of this whiskey might be better, but this standard base version just brings back too many memories of grain whiskey like Old Crow. And those aren’t necessarily pleasant memories.
Production: Gimli, Canada
Classification: Canadian Rye Whiskey
Grain bill: 64% corn, 31.5% rye, 4.5% malted barley
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $22.99/ 750ml
Overall Rating: 2/5
Not earning its crown.