Canadian Whisky Takes Centre Stage With Controversial "Win"

 Jim Murray's favourite 2016 whisky along-side Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel

Jim Murray's favourite 2016 whisky along-side Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel

Most media outlets got it wrong. The Internet, in its outrage, got it right. Jim Murray named Crown Royal North Harvest Rye as the best whisky he’s tasted in 2015. Everyone went: What?

It’s especially a complex topic here in Canada, because this award recognizes the breath and scope of Canadian whisky and yet isolates it to just one whisky. Awards like this draw attention. But even then, Jim Murray noted how he nearly removed Canadian whisky from his book as a category. Ridiculous.

It’s likewise complicated, because unlike previous winners, people can go out and buy this whisky. It’s available in the US and Canada. Or at least it was, until it was named the best whisky in the world by one man. Now everyone, including myself, has an opinion on where Crown Royal North Harvest Rye fits in the grand scheme of things. It’s even been pitted against Buffalo Trace Antique Collection on the internet!

Never has the diversity of palates become so apparent as with this whisky. That’s the main complaint with Jim Murray receiving this media attention—there’s no best whisky (there are favourites!), and there’s no one person that defines whisky. Yet, the media goes for the easy sell. Most headlines weren’t “Well-known Whisky Critic names Canadian Whisky Best (as he sells books)” but instead the headlines were “Canada makes the best whisky in the world!” Some articles contained false statements, such as Canadian whisky contains prune juice (not true!) or that it has neutral spirit (also not true!).

“The Internet” has echoed the following points concisely: Jim Murray’s goal is to sell books, and headlines sell books. Crown Royal North Harvest Rye isn’t the best whisky that’s come out with the Crown Royal label—that definitely belongs to the Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel releases. Canadian whisky is absolutely deserving of the attention it’s received in the global sphere.

As with last year’s choice, the Yamakazi Sherry Cask 2013 was probably not the best expression of Japanese whisky, but it deservingly placed attention on Japanese whisky. Headlines, rightly or wrongly, legitimize categories of whisky. And while more people had the opportunity to appreciate Japanese whisky, most of these whiskies quickly disappeared from the marketplace unable to sustain demand. Jim Murray has that influence.

Champions of Canadian whisky, especially Davin de Kergommeaux, have seen this coming for several years. Canadian whisky is the single most creative category in the whisky world because of the freedom given to whisky makers. If anything, Canadian whisky has been held back by the stereotype that it’s smooth and clean in flavour. The new era of Canadian ryes are anything but smooth, and I mean that in the best of ways.

This point is worth echoing. Bourbons must use new oak because that’s dictated by law (thanks lobbyists!). Some of my favourite Canadian whiskies use about 90% new barrels, and 10% re-used barrels. New oak will easily overpower lighter flavours in whisky, and Canadian whisky embraces these lighter floral notes. Likewise, the Canadian whisky industry has the freedom of using any variation of grain types in any ratio. Bourbon and single-malt scotch do not have this luxury. The Canadian whisky category is the most diverse whisky category in the world because of these freedoms.

So I’ll admit, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, the attention these headlines bring to Canadian whisky is deserved. On the other hand, is Crown Royal North Harvest Rye the best expression of Canadian whisky? It’s up there. Most (definitely not all) “bottom-shelf” Canadian whiskies suffer from being few-note whiskies. The same is true, of course, for bottom-shelf bourbons and scotch blends. Crown Royal North Harvest Rye etches up in price, and amps up the flavour and complexity.

I do, though, continue to have a hard time imaging scoring this whisky in the high 90s (Jim Murray scored it a 97.5/100). Crown Royal Single Barrel, though, will absolutely hold its own against the top contenders for the year. It’s infinitely more intense, flavourful, and complex by comparison.

When separating out the current issues among whisky connoisseurs over Jim Murray’s pick, it’s simple:

  • The outrage over Jim Murray is obvious, but hopeless. The media will continue to screw-up the headlines crediting one man’s opinion as “the best of the world.” We’ll see it again next year. More accurately headlines would be lovely!
  • Crown Royal North Harvest Rye is a good rye for its price-point, so who cares if its rated a 90 or a 98 or 85?
  • Canadian whisky is absolutely deserving of this attention.
  • This will, hopefully, put an end to many of the misconceptions around Canadian whisky.
 Canadian whisky starter pack with Lot No. 40, Crown Royal Rye, and Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert

Canadian whisky starter pack with Lot No. 40, Crown Royal Rye, and Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert

If you’re new to Canadian whisky, the starter pack is simple. Get a bottle of Crown Royal North Harvest Rye if you can, but Lot No. 40 and Forty Creek are also excellent purchases. To learn more about Canadian whisky, pick-up the Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert by Davin de Kergommeaux. It’s not only an excellent book on Canadian whisky, it’s a great book about the making and tasting of whisky. And, last but not least, enjoy!