It's May, but the ice on Lake Winnipeg is thick enough to drive a truck on. Dwayne Kozlowski smiles, assuring me that in a couple of months the water will be warm enough for swimming. We're in Gimli, Manitoba, the east-west centre of Canada, and it's Canada-cold here. The spirit of Gimli though, is warmth itself. This little town of about 2,000 people happens to be home to Crown Royal, Canada's best selling whisky. But for one obsessive individual, this might never have been the case.
Early in 1920, when the US instituted Prohibition, Canadian distillers were horrified. Their biggest market had suddenly gone dry. Some closed their doors, others struggled on. Initially, Seagram's, in Waterloo, Ontario, diversified, making furniture. Without the huge American market their distillery was not profitable, so they agreed to a merger that quickly became a takeover by Distillers Corporation Limited of Montreal. Controlling that merger was Samuel Bronfman, 'Mr. Sam.' Where others saw bankruptcy, Mr. Sam saw opportunity. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933 that vision had made him a billionaire. Although there is no evidence that he ever actually sold whisky illegally, his reputation became tainted by association when his whisky was re-sold to the speakeasies and blind pigs of America's Roaring Twenties.
Embarrassed by these links with bootleggers, once Prohibition ended Mr. Sam worked desperately to gain respectability. He gave generously to charities, established and funded philanthropic foundations, and sought (without success) to earn himself a seat in Canada's Senate. Within his still burgeoning whisky empire he set the highest standards for quality. He was determined that no one would ever be able to dismiss his whisky as mere Prohibition hooch.
In 1939, when Mr. Sam learned that King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, planned to tour Canada, he saw an opportunity to rub elbows with royalty. Knowing that the royal couple enjoyed their whisky, he prepared a special blend to commemorate their visit.
A perfectionist, Sam Bronfman took charge of creating the royal whisky, but early attempts did not meet his standards. Finally, using whiskies from an old Coffey still, he created a blend he felt was worthy of royalty. When the royal couple arrived, ten cases of it awaited them aboard their train.
Did their majesties ever taste Bronfman's whisky? It doesn't matter; simply being associated with a royal tour was a public relations sensation. Reproduced in volumes and released in Canada as Crown Royal, the whisky sold briskly. However, Americans had to wait another twenty five years before they could buy theirs.
Some components of Mr. Sam's blend were over 30 years old and he felt he did not have enough long-aged whisky to service the US market, should the brand prove popular there. Instead, he began laying down stock. Today, Crown Royal has become the best selling Canadian whisky both in Canada and the US. Sold almost exclusively in North America, this signal brand has recently been introduced to the UK.
Seeking to expand, in the late 1960s Seagram's built a new distillery here in Gimli. Then the 1980s whisky crash forced managers to consolidate production of all its other brands here. Crown Royal remained in Waterloo until the historic Waterloo distillery was decommissioned in 1992. Today, in a reverse move, all the other brands have departed. The Gimli distillery is now used exclusively for Crown Royal.
I'm touring this massive plant with Dwayne Kozlowski, Manager of the recently opened visitor centre. Because Gimli is so cold so much of the year, heat recycled from the stills keeps its three dozen warehouses warm enough to ensure the fire sprinklers don't freeze.
Inside the distillery a bank of round, painted fermenting tanks with covers resembling Chinese douli hats stands in contrast to other square, open stainless steel fermenters bubbling noisily nearby. Mashes from these square fermenters will be used to make batch base whisky, a spirit that emphasizes flavours derived from previously used wooden barrels. "Batch base is the secret of Crown Royal's condensed milk mouth-feel," Master Blender Andrew MacKay once told me.
People who misunderstand how Canadian whisky is made sometimes question this process that creates two spirit streams, each emphasizing a different flavour source. Because the spirit that becomes base whisky is distilled to about 94 per cent ABV, they assume this removes all the flavour. Rather, before being put into barrels this spirit is reduced to about 77 per cent ABV, permitting it to interact most effectively with the wood. It's an expensive process, but one that allows whisky makers to draw the more subtle and nuanced oak flavours from used barrels. Gimli distillery makes and blends two different styles of base whisky. Batch base is distilled in a kettle and column still, continuous base in a continuous column.
Today I get to see Gimli's pride and joy: Mr. Sam's copper Coffey still. This ancient apparatus is the key to Crown Royal's other secret ingredient: Coffey rye. Most Canadian whisky is made by fermenting and distilling each grain separately then bringing them together as mature whiskies. This is exactly how Crown Royal is made. With two exceptions. A mash of 64 per cent corn, 31.5 per cent rye, and 4.5 per cent barley malt is distilled in two different ways to make two different flavouring whiskies. One is a low ABV bourbon spirit and the other a low ABV rye. Run the fermented mash through a beer still and the product tastes like bourbon. Use the copper Coffey still instead and it tastes like rye. An additional flavouring whisky is distilled from a mash of 95 per cent rye and 5 per cent barley malt.
Gimli now welcomes visitors (groups only, by appointment) and they can taste these spirits. True believers in the importance of mash-bill grain proportions for determining flavour are going to have some serious head shaking to do.
This Coffey rye is something special. When Scottish distiller, Pauline Rooney arrived in Gimli to manage the distillery she was surprised to discover that Crown Royal did not bottle any small batch whisky. I recall Dave Broom visiting Gimli and strongly encouraging Pauline to bottle the Coffey rye unblended. Her smile hinted that something was already in the works. Pauline has since moved on, but to our delighted surprise, after six or eight months of bureaucratic machinations, the brand has released Coffey rye, not in small batches, but as single barrel whisky called 'Hand Selected Barrel.' The initial release focused on Crown Royal's largest market, Texas and was so successful the whisky will be rolled out across America - and with luck into Canada as well. Ironically, a country known for keeping its best whiskies at home was not included in the initial launch of Hand Selected Barrel.
Despite his enormous wealth, Sam Bronfman's empire - Seagram's - is no more, its brands sold to various competitors. But his enduring legacy remains Crown Royal. Today, 40 years after his death, his obsession with quality lives on as sales of Crown Royal continue to increase.
By The Numbers
76 employees on site
8 grain silos, 3000 bushels each
Dedicated hammermills for each grain type
Mash 300 - 310 tonnes of grain daily
Commercial yeast for continuous base. Grow several yeast strains on site for batch base and flavouring whiskies
12 column stills
1 Coffey still
Distills equivalent of 33 million litres pure alcohol annually
Full barrels on site: 1.4 million
Visitors in groups by appointment. Absolutely no drop-ins.
Continuous Base new make (bench sample)
Toffee, light bitterness, floral hints. Creamy and very light.
Continuous Base 8 Years Old (bench sample)Clean wood, toffee, caramel, more sweetness less bitterness than new make, very spicy, grapefruit rind.
Batch Base new make (bench sample)
Juicy fruit gum, medicinal, almost rubbery, sweet butterscotch on palate.
Batch Base 8 Years Old (bench sample)
Soft, sweet and creamy with a slight bitterness and growing peppery heat.
Rye flavouring whisky 11 Years Old (bench sample)
Vanilla, allspice, cinnamon, Bavarian rye bread, loads of wood, drying tannins, vanilla custard, warm spices, peppery heat.
Crown Royal Deluxe (40% ABV)
Creamy vanilla, crisp wood, lavender, the produce aisle, bourbon-like.
Crown Royal XR (40% ABV)
Fat and fruity with a syrupy mouth feel. Dried fruit, pine boughs, and rich Christmas pudding.
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel (51.5% ABV)
Sweet floral perfume, vanilla, milk chocolate, oaky tannins, sweet and sour sauce, Christmas spices, and tropical fruits, all centered on soft banana candy. A long spicy, velvet tannin finish.
Crown Royal Reserve (40% ABV)
Cedar, cinnamon, cloves, pitchy pinecones, butterscotch and a buttery finish.
Crown Royal XO LaSalle (40% ABV)
Dark fruits and a touch vegetal. Very fruity and Cognac like. Bitter walnut.