If you were to, let’s say, come up with a “world restaurant of the year” award, it would seem an awfully broad category, would it not? An award with a title that vague would have to include the Red Lobsters and Applebees of the world right next to the Nomas and French Laundries because, after all they are restaurants, too, right? When it came time to pick a winner, however, the former would be nowhere to be found because they are in every aspect not even close to being in the same league as the latter. The quality of the ingredients, the creativity and skill of their preparation, and the attention to service of restaurants like Noma, French Laundry, and even the Delfinas, Almas, and Sanfords of the world are so far above that of the large, stuff-your-face chain restaurants that no one with even mildly authoritative restaurant expertise would think that, “you know, I think Chipotle is the best restaurant in the world.”
Yet, here we are again. Towards the end of November, a new “world’s best whisky” has been crowned and the mindless hordes are scrambling to spend all their money snatching up whatever bottle carries that title this month. This time around Jim Murray chose, as the major selling point for his book, Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye as the beneficiary of his 2016 World Whisky of the Year award. Crown Royal (owned by the small but very well-funded outfit called Diageo, for what it’s worth) released Northern Harvest Rye earlier this year. It stands out somewhat by being 90% rye whereas most Canadian ryes have much less rye content. That’s about the only way it stands out. The standard PR belch on this one also claims that it is special because it uses Canadian “Winter Rye,” the only grain that apparently thrives in Canada’s harsh Winters. Well now, that would be something, eh? A whisky made with a special kind of rye only grown in Canada? Ah ha, Terroir! It makes sense that this world whiskey of the year would be made with something special like that, right?
Wrong. Here’s the thing: “winter rye” is pretty much an umbrella term. It’s a bit more specific than “cereal rye” which serves to differentiate rye grain from rye grass which isn’t a grain at all. There are variations and certified types of winter rye like AC Hazlet, Spooner, and Prima, but they are still winter ryes, meaning that they’re planted in the fall, able to survive harsh winters, and are harvested in the spring. Yes, winter rye is grown in Canada, but it’s also grown in the U.S., Europe, Russia, Turkey, China, Australia, and even in South America. There is a “spring” rye (spring planting, fall harvest) but in general, winter rye is considered the superior crop, both quality-wise and agro-economics-wise. What all this means is that the majority of rye grown and used for distilling, in Canada, in the U.S., in Europe, wherever…is winter rye. That Bulleit Rye you see everywhere? Made from winter rye. Other Canadian ryes made by non-Diageo owned brands? Winter rye. Every bourbon with rye in the mashbill? Winter rye. The use of winter rye does not make Crown Royal’s Northern Harvest Rye special, it makes it pretty much like every other whiskey that uses rye on the market. If Crown Royal made this whiskey with some special variety of winter rye grown only in Canada, then they might have something. But at this point, all official and unofficial coverage I’ve seen of this whisky simply talk about the use of something that sounds unique, but in fact is pretty much the opposite.
So with that in mind, we are to believe that a $30 whiskey made from the same stuff so much other whiskey is made from, made not to explore the possibilities of grain and maturation but to sell as many bottles as possible, is somehow the best whisky in the world? Hell, I guess that could be possible, but in this case, it’s not. Far from it. It’s not even the best whisky on my table at the moment, and I only have two whiskies in front of me. I’m sure this whiskey will appeal to some, but the rave reviews and the some of this misinformation being tossed around about this one is a mystery to me. This is just another inexpensive, mediocre whiskey with a nice bit of misleading PR behind it, hardly a new thing in the whiskey world and certainly not award-worthy.
The Nose: Hardly inviting – young and solvent-y hot. There are sweet notes of vanilla bean, brown sugar, and apple – both fresh and juicy, and spiced and baked. Nice grain notes of toasted rye berries and rye crackers…and stoneground wheat crackers, too. Behind that, there’s a little cocoa powder and mild spice notes of cinnamon candies and nutmeg. Sadly, all this lies under a heavy veil of cheap nail-polish remover.
The Palate: Well, it’s better than the nose at least, though still quite hot. There’s more brown sugar and baked apple sweetness, and a bit of orange citrus zing as well. Vanilla and chocolate chip cookies morph into warm fresh rye bread (though less rye than the nose hints at). Some sturdy tannic oak, cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and black pepper swell towards the end. A rather sharp, spirit-y, youthful bitterness leads to the finish.
The Finish: Medium, but given that young astringency, a little too long. There’s brown sugars, grippy oak, soft rye, cinnamon and white pepper as well.
Thoughts: Hugely disappointing. I was ready to like this, and hopefully file it next to excellent affordable Canadians like Lot 40 and Alberta Dark Horse, but instead, I’m left shaking my head at a rather confusing whiskey. It’s not necessarily horrible, it’s just obviously mediocre…at best The palate is mostly nice, but the hot, solvent-y nose and sharp, bitter finish, don’t leave me wanting more. This isn’t a matter of a whiskey not matching my personal preferences, this one simply does not meet some obvious, more or less universal standards of high quality whiskey. There are many other Canadian whiskeys to seek out before this one. Save your money, don’t buy the hype. Not Recommended.