On the Base Whiskies of the Remarkable Crown Royal Distillery / by Jason Hambrey

An aerial image of the Crown Royal distillery in Gimli, Manitoba. Copyright Jeremy Dueck, Courtesy of Crown Royal.

An aerial image of the Crown Royal distillery in Gimli, Manitoba.

Copyright Jeremy Dueck, Courtesy of Crown Royal.

Many believe that Crown Royal is in fact a bourbon due to the luscious creamy and vanilla notes contained at the heart of many of their products. It is not - it is made in Gimli, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba.

Crown Royal is a remarkable distillery. They make 5 different types of distillates which filter into an assortment of brands once aged. It’s well worth talking about. These 5 spirits go into a variety of different woods (new oak, once-used, re-used, cognac, etc.) and are taken out of the barrel at a variety of different ages – which is why Crown always boasts of their blends of 50 or so whiskies – all are, in fact different, due to different barreling and aging regimens. It is perhaps a bit overstated, but nonetheless remarkable.

Gimli was founded in the 1960s when Seagram’s Valleyfield distillery couldn’t produce enough for the demand of Seagram’s VO and Crown Royal, so the Gimli distillery was built. Originally, it was to focus on VO but Crown outgrew VO and its efforts shifted there. Ok, let's get to the spirit!

Base whiskies

Here, the emphasis is on creating a great base upon which to blend upon. These whiskies allow the characteristics of highly flavored whiskies to be highlighted.

  1. Continous Corn-Based Whisky: This whisky is corn-based (100% Corn), and is all about a light base whisky that is easy to produce, distilled to high proof – but it is nothing like vodka. It is cooked in a continous process before spending about 60 hours fermenting, and is distilled in a continuous beer still before being sent to another set of continuous column stills for distillation to higher proof and to produce a very light, clean base whisky. This is quite an industrial process – a continual process of transforming grain into whisky, with corn coming in and distillate coming out in a continuous process. It is dumped into re-used barrels ,which pick up the Crown Royal house style from previous whisky stored in the barrels. Despite being distilled to a very high poof, this tastes nothing like vodka. At about 7 years old, this whisky has a heart of light toffee, light corn, and white pepper with a light spicy finish. If you have a whisky like Canadian 83, you get a sense of what this style is like - but even this is a blend with other whiskies at the centre - the base whiskies aren’t showcased. If you want to taste it, the only way is in a Crown Royal masterclass if they let you taste the components...
  2. Batch Base Corn Whisky: This whisky is different from the above in the sense that it is produced in batches rather than as a continuous process, as the name implies. It is high corn –  now 100% (it used to be 97% corn, 3% malted barley) – again, cooked but this time in batches and fermented similarly for about 60 hours. It is then distilled in the continuous beer still, and then distilled in a copper kettle and column still – something like a pot still with a continuous still set on top. Like typical pot still distillation, the heads and tails are discarded and only the heart is collected. The whisky goes into re-used barrels. This whisky is richer than the continuous corn base whisky – but still light, with a light nuttiness, corn, and yet still being quite sharp and very creamy. I quite enjoy it. Crown Royal Limited Edition has a fair amount of this whisky in there, but, again, it’s a blend where the base doesn’t dominate, though it is the main support of the whisky. The true example of this is Orphan Barrel Entrapment is fully based on this whisky, but at 25 years old – but the sample I had which was about 10 years old I liked more than the Orphan Barrel, so it’s not necessarily indicative.

Flavouring Whiskies

Here, the emphasis is all about flavour, and more care is taken at each step to generate flavor.

  1. Corn-Based Whisky (i.e. a bourbon-style mash): Here, the emphasis is on high flavour. This whisky is made the same was as a very high-rye bourbon. It is cooked as in batches as a mashbill of 64% corn, 31.5% rye, and 4.5% malted barley and fermented for around 75 hours – longer than the base whiskies – to enable the generation of additional fruity notes. Like a bourbon, it is only distilled in the column beer still before going directly into new charred barrels (almost exclusively, though some go into first fill ex-bourbon barrels). It tastes, unsurprisingly, like a bourbon – full of terrific dried fruit notes, rich rye spice (clove, nutmeg, light star anise), and a rich nuttiness. The closest analogy is Four Roses Single Barrel, but this has a lot more light fruit, is fruitier, and not quite as richly oaky. It is brilliant at cask strength, and I hope we see it as such at some point. They are releasing this whisky as Crown Royal Bourbon Mash soon (it will be re-named after a year since the US TTB decided against the name after it was approved). Sadly, it'll only be at 40%. After Northern Harvest, I was hoping for 45%. This isn’t clearly found anywhere, yet, until the new whisky and we can cross our fingers for a limited release – but it is showcased throughout the blends.
  2. Rye Flavouring Whisky: This whisky is a 95% rye and 5% barley whisky which, like the other flavouring whiskies, is cooked in batches, distilled about 75 hours to develop extra flavours, and distilled in a beer still. It then goes to be distilled again in a column still, before being put into new oak (mostly, but a small bit goes into first fill ex-bourbon). It tastes of incredible spice, dried fruit and oak – this can be seen in the heart of Northern Harvest rye, which is mostly this whisky. It has brilliant spicy and fruit notes and dominates at whisky competitions. Again, it tastes brilliant at cask strength – I hope we get some offerings at some point. But it’s probably a bit too intense for most (but not me!), so it may need to be tamed with some base whisky.
  3. Coffey Rye: The most renowned of Crown Royal's whiskies, this whisky starts as the corn-based whisky (bourbon mash), but after the beer still distillation it is distilled in Canada’s only Coffey Still. This is only made once a year, over a 5 week period, because so much tweaking has to be done to get this distillate just right. It is then filled into new charred oak barrels. This is seen in Crown Royal Hand Selected Single Barrel or Blender’s Select. Again, remarkable at cask strength.

It’s no wonder Gimli can output so many blends!