Canadian “whisky” is gentle. Clean and silky. Incandescent.
Almost, to some palettes, anyway, exceptionally so. The bite is there, for sure, but it’s soft and bright. Creamy.
But that’s as it should be.
I knew little about Canadian whisky until Crown Royal and parent company Diageo brought me to its massive plant in Gimli, Manitoba, about an hour north of Winnipeg. Gimli is much about Crown Royal. The town also gained a bit of infamy when an Air Canada plane ran short on fuel and literally glided in Gimli, which is Norse for “home of the Gods.”
It’s not a big bourbon, and it sure as hell doesn’t try to be.
And why would it want to. It’s a marvel in itself.
Canadian whisky, by definition, is blended whiskey, which, at Crown Royal, means starting with a base batch and continuous batch and blending those with flavors — a bourbon-like distillate, a rye and a Coffey rye, named for the somewhat mysterious still in which its produced.
Master blenders mingle the disparate distillates until the most recent batch of Crown Royal Deluxe is takes much like a batch from 1993. The whisky is tasted at every step throughout the process, by some of the 75 or so workers at the plant, which runs 24/7 and encompasses 54 buildings on 360 acres.
The tastings — six or seven before the whisky hits the rail cars — are perfunctory and bittersweet. Counterintuitive but necessarily so.
“The saddest part of the day,” says Doug Wilkie,quality manager for Diageo Canada. “I’ve tasted it, but then I have to spit it out.”
We boarded a small prop plane, about six of us and — a bit nervously — crowded into seats all just a few feet removed from the pilot. The weather was chilly and gray, yet relatively warm. The ride bumpy yet calm. Lake Winnipeg stretched out a couple of thousand feet below us, the shores fading to the flat ground, interrupted by the Crown Royal distillery, its 50 barrel houses, which, from our view, appeared as neatly placed children’s blocks. High columns heaved smoke, which dissipated just below us.
The stacks are visible from miles away. A good sign, says Wilkie, who narrated a brief history of the distillery as we, a group of whisky writers and aficionados, road by bus from Winnipeg, down a preternaturally empty and unwavering.
Not unlike the whisky, originally made for a king and queen in 1939 and released to the United States in 1962. That original blend was composed of some 50 whiskies.
Every stage in the distillation process is controlled. Same goes for aging. The warehouses at the Gimli plant hold more than 1.56 million barrels of Crown Royal, which makes 11 products, including the special Crown Roya XO, which is finished in Cognac casks, the Cornerstone Blend, the first release in the Noble Collection and the 2012 XR, a product of one of the final batches of whiskies from the LaSalle distillery. The barrels are stacked on end, unlike bourbon casks, which are typically laid on their sides.
In a quiet, comfortable restaurant in Winnipeg, National Brand Ambassador Stephen Wilson walked the group through several exceptional whiskies. He spoke of consistency, of Crown Royal as an “old friend.”
A great old friend.