Your $30 Crown Royal Rye: Probably Not the Best Whisky in the World

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye
Taste Score: Batch-dependent
Category: Canadian Whisky, Rye, Blend
Whisky Cabinet Score: ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Update: Crown Royal has removed batch numbers from the latest release of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. 

The amount of attention that Jim Murray's annual "Best Whisky" award receives is met with eye-rolls from many whisky enthusiasts. Often the whiskies are either difficult to find or expensive. Last year's winner, Yamazaki Sherry Cask (2013), is selling on the grey market for over $3000 a bottle.

Unlike the 2015 pick, the 2016 winner is readily available in North America. Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye took centre stage (Davin's review is excellent). Naturally, everyone had an opinion. The jeers and cheers that followed the headlines are possibly more interesting than the whisky itself.

I was hard-pressed to find anyone, other than Jim Murray himself, that thought of this as the best whisky in the world. Many whisky reviewers (myself included) noted that Crown Royal Rye is the third best whisky Crown Royal has made last year. Crown Royal 75th Monarch Edition being second-best, and Crown Royal's Hand Selected Barrel being by-far the best whisky to come from Crown Royal.

But I’m going to let you in on a secret; that Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye you bought for $30 is probably not the same whisky Jim Murray awarded, despite the labeling being (nearly) identical. According to Jim Murray's website, he tasted batch L5085 N3.

My Suspicion Over Bottle Variation Started with Blind Tastings

As a friend noted, no $30 whisky product is intended to be scrutinized to this degree. But because of the fame, I certainly scrutinized this whisky. I started growing suspicious of flavor variance when I tasted a friend's bottle of Crown Royal NHR. It tasted nothing like the one I had at home. So I did a test.

In a private tasting with a small group of whisky enthusiasts, I poured three different batches of Crown Royal NHR. They didn't know what was being poured, nor that it all came from the same distillery. This group is accustomed to my trickery—on a few occasions, I poured them the same whisky into two glasses to see if anyone would recognize they were identical.

They're quite good at catching my tricks. When faced with three different batches of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, their opinions were unusually unanimous. They loved one batch, enjoyed the second batch, and hated the third. No one had considered that they all came from the same distillery. You can listen to the results on The Whisky Topic Podcast Ep 49.

Flavor Variation in the Crown Royal Rye is about the Caramel Notes Balanced with the Rye

Most whiskies are bottled in batches. The master blender or whisky maker selects from a few to many hundreds of barrels for the purpose of blending them to a specific flavor. These selected barrels are blended in a vat, and then the whisky is sent to the bottling line. In rare situations, these batches are identified on the bottle. In the case of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, there's a sequence of numbers and letters that identifies the batch release just beneath the neck of the bottle.

With Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, the variation of flavor is easily identifiable. Much of this variation has to do with the caramel-based flavors balancing out with the rye. This is something that Jim Murray wrote about at length in his review. With the first bottle of Crown Royal Rye that I had, the caramel notes were weak, and cheapened the overall flavor of the whisky. The other bottles that I've tasted of Crown Royal Rye had heavier caramel notes, and a smoother transition into the rye finish.

Batch deviation isn't unusual. It may not even have anything to do with the whisky maker. The storage of whisky bottles can also affect the flavor of individual bottles. For example, the government-based corporation that sells whisky in Ontario (LCBO) sometimes shelves whiskies in areas where they receive direct sunlight. This will definitely affect the flavor of the whisky, but it is rare.  In this release, though, the variation seems particularly turbulent from the several bottles I've tried.

Perhaps this is simply the case that a whisky at this price point was never intended to be scrutinized to this degree. Either way, whatever rye you purchased for $30 is probably not quite the same as the one Jim Murray rated as the best. And when you consider that point, the controversy around Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye starts making sense.

Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye Review

When reviewing Crown Royal Rye, I broken down the tasting to the four bottles that I was able to taste under ideal conditions. The variation between these is staggering.

In the one particular batch (L6043 N3 21:37), it tastes like a whisky made in an entirely different distillery. It briefly reminded me of a rye out of Alberta Distillers, such as a young Masterson's or Whistle Pig. The base-rye simply tasted different. It could be an association I have created between Alberta Distillers and a particular rye note. It truly was an exceptional batch of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye.

On the opposite end, batch (L5240 N5 12:10) is particularly poor. The rye note is unpleasantly harsh (not floral, just harsh). It lacks the caramel notes to smooth-out the whisky. It tastes like a cheap rye matured in barrels re-used many-times-over. It lacks that body of a rye even at this price-point.

Most of the batches I have tasted are very good. The conclusion, then, is Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye is a fun and forward-flavored whisky that comes out wonderfully at its price-point. If you'd like to dive deeper, I've reviewed vastly different batches. Incidentally, I did review two bottles blindly that tasted identical. They ended up being from the same batch (L5240 N5 12:00).

The bright side of all this is the newer releases L6xxx ones are better than the original releases from this extremely small sampling. Your results will vary. 

Note: I did reached out to a representative of Diageo (owner of Crown Royal) to discuss batch variations and batch numbering. The person I reached out to was unable to provide me further insight on the meaning of the batch numbers. 

L6043 N3 21:37 - Score 93

Nose: Light but freshly melted caramel, lovely high rye notes, floral, and peppery. Green apple notes are nicely complimented with buttery goodness. The caramel continues to float through wonderfully.

Palate: The caramel notes come and go in waves, hitting you to start before the rye crushes through the palate. Upon the second wave, the caramel hits you a little softer, and the rye floats over-top of that flavor. Vanilla and brown apple add to a deeper element. Brown sugar and citrus join the chorus of favors. The rye is beautifully highlighted. The finish is spicy and buttery (unlike the others, which leaned toward burnt-butter notes). 

Conclusion: It's not like the others. The rye notes are wonderful, the caramel is balanced. Is L6043-N3-21:37 the best whisky in the world? No, but it's better than most. 

L6096 N5 21:36 - Score: 88

Note: From the other samples I've tasted, this is closest to the average. 

Nose: Charred lemongrass, melting caramel, candied orange peel, some ginger, and candied green apple. Wonderful freshly cut grass notes, cinnamon spice rounds out the flavors. This whisky grows wonderfully in the glass. When left in the glass for a prolonged period of time there’s some dill.

Palate: Melted caramel takes on the predominant deep notes, with some buttery-goodness through the middle of the palate. The rye spice aggressively hits you near up-front (almost too aggressive), but it settles in beautifully with the sweet caramel notes. The whisky is seasoned heavily. Some ginger notes hits the palate, and it turns bitter in moments. Zesty bright caramel, dill, tons of seasoning, and you have the making of a fine whisky. Unlike the others, the bitter notes are kept at bay but present. 

Conclusion: A fantastic nose that develops over time, and a palate that challenges the senses with intensity. It's not a "smooth" whisky of which I am grateful for, though there are some minor flaws through the middle and finish.

L5240 N5 12:00 - Score 82

Nose: Dark chocolate and caramel, ginger-soda pop, grassy notes and licorice. Overly simple on the nose. There's a burnt butter note that seems out-of-place.

Palate: As with the nose, simpler notes here with caramel and spice. The rye is light, unmoving, but does tail off toward the bitter notes. Dark chocolate bitter notes are nicely balanced with the gentle rye. The rye finish is wonderfully present.

Conclusion: A forward rye-flavored whisky that makes for a smooth-ish sipper. It's missing the caramel pop to start, but the finish makes up for it. It's a fine average whisky that tastes a little too watered down.

L5240 N5 12:10 - Score: 78

Nose: Light caramel, rye notes, ginger, floral, perfume. On the nose it's a gentle rye with some caramel notes. Not an overly promising nose.

Palate: Burnt caramel, and harsh under-matured rye. Low on oak-sweetness, with a hit of caramel flavoring, and some of the burnt bitter notes I associate with E-150 caramel flavoring. The rye is quiet, subdued, at first, but it turns harsher toward the end. It's a bit of a rough whisky. The scratchiness on the throat is negatively reminiscent of a sore-throat. The lack of rounded caramel fails this batch.

Conclusion: Subpar by every measurement. It may have been a bad batch, or the bottle might have seen hard-times. Of that, I can't know, but I can tell you it was quite possibly the worst whisky I tasted in 2015.