I’ve never been much into whisky.
I asked a friend, who is a dedicated whisky drinker, to recommend a couple for inclusion in a spirits column I did just prior to Christmas. At least, I think that’s when it was. No matter.
My friend, like most of us, appreciates the good things in life but also welcomes a bargain when he can find one. So his go-to brands are Gibson’s Finest Sterling Canadian Whisky for $24.49 for a 750 ml bottle, or preferably, Gibson’s Finest Gold 12 Year Canadian Whisky (my pick) for $26.99, which I’ve discovered I very much like. He also is enamoured with Centennial 10-Year Canadian Rye Whisky, which he thinks is amazing, especially for the price ($24.88 or a 750 ml bottle).
While I appreciate its smoothness, and that’s what he’s particularly admires about it, I find the Gibson’s, especially the Gold, to be a little more gutsy — it has depth that, to my taste, the Centennial lacks. It’s both elegant and edgy, if that contradictory statement makes any sense whatsoever.
Anyway, because of my burgeoning interest in rye, I was intrigued by what the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair kick-off reception had on offer. But I like purity, and am not so much into cocktails. So I was initially a little dismayed that those — cocktails — were the only options on offer. But as they say, when in Rome…
Each of the cocktails was unique, and each featured one of five different versions of Crown Royal. They were designed and poured that day by expert mixologists, so those of us in attendance were in for a real treat. While the ingredients of some suggested they might be sweet, I chose The Black Manhattan, which I ended up loving. Recipes for all these splendid cocktails will be included in next week’s column, and I suspect there may be a few more converts like me.
Thanks to ACC president Mark Frison, I attended the reception, and also thanks to Frison, who’d already had a chat with Jan Westcott, president and CEO of Spirits Canada, the Association of Canadian Distillers, I knew a bit about Westcott before I interrupted a conversation in which he was animatedly involved, and brazenly introduced myself.
A fountain of information about whisky and its connection to agriculture, Westcott was enthusiasm and entertainment personified. His upbeat nature and obvious passion for his products encouraged me to ask, despite the fact I loved my Black Manhattan, if I might be able to taste the Crown Royal lineup without the other cocktail ingredients getting in the way, as it were. I think the only way to assess beverages is on their own, and Westcott was only too happy to oblige.
He had his stellar bartenders (well, they were more than that — mixology pros who were turning out these marvelous concoctions swiftly and accurately, all with tremendous flourish) set me up with five of the Crown Royal products — Crown Royal Deluxe Canadian Whisky ($27.49), Crown Royal Limited Edition Canadian Whisky ($34.99), Crown Royal Cask No. 16 Canadian Whisky ($99.99, and finished in Limousin oak barrels that were used to make Cognac), Crown Royal Black Canadian Whisky ($31.99), and the Crown Royal Maple Whisky ($29.99). I sampled them, as Westcott suggested, in the order listed above.
There’s no question that all were impressive. But while I usually prefer, much to the detriment of my bank account, the most expensive liquor-based items on offer, in this case, I was pleased to note that, while I was captivated by the Crown Royal Cask No. 16 — it’s smooth and elegant and somehow delicate, and did I mention delicious! — I actually preferred the Limited Edition, which to me was a great combination of ballsy and refined, and the Black, which had a depth of barrel flavour and intensity that really appealed to me.
I liked the Maple very much as well, and it’s not terribly sweet, although the name might suggest otherwise. There’s definitely a maple component, and I suspect this is a move to draw more of those who prefer something with a slightly sweet taste into the Crown Royal fold. But it’s lovely, both as a sipping whisky and in a cocktail.
So next week, more about Crown Royal’s history, Westcott’s views on whisky, and the fabulous cocktail recipes.
But I leave you with this thought of Westcott’s, which gave me a whole new perspective on our agricultural industry. I always thought of grain as making flour. And that’s it. I can’t believe I was so stupidly naïve, but I was. And I thank Crown Royal and Westcott for their support of the Royal Manitoba Winter Fair, where education happens for everybody, including me.
"I think it’s important that we be here for this," Westcott said. "This reflects grain grown in Manitoba. Every brand’s got a different recipe — how much of one grain versus another. If their barrels are lightly toasted or heavily charred. The yeast that they use in the fermentation.
"It’s like your grandmother’s famous apple pie. The recipes are all very secret and they’re all unique and it’s a very complex art and skill to make these. There’s a lot of artisanal skill that goes into making great whisky. And (Crown Royal owner and manufacturer) Diageo is sort of at the top of their game.
"And it’s Manitoban. This is something that Manitoba, and Manitobans, should be extremely proud of. They’re producing one of the world’s great whiskies."