In Texas, everything is bigger. Even whisky. Texans love their whisky enough to have their own brand called Texas Spirit. And in true Texas style, whether it's Scotch, Bourbon or Canadian whisky, Texas Spirit is packaged in 1.5 litre bottles.
Texas could accommodate eight Scotlands or 17 Kentuckys in its 269,000 square miles and still have room for a ranch the size of Rhode Island. And nowhere do people love Canadian whisky more than they do in Texas. Their favourite? By a long shot, it's Crown Royal. Texans drink more Crown Royal than they do Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam, Johnnie Walker or any other whisky of any style or type.
If it seems strange that people living so far from Canada should be so keen on Canadian whisky, think oil. The first commercial oil wells in North America were in Canada while the largest are in Texas. Roughnecks, the people who do the specialised, backbreaking work of opening a well, travel where their work takes them. For nearly a century, as oil fields opened up in Canada and the US, a loose-knit community of roughnecks has drifted back and forth between Alberta and Texas. The Texans learned to love Canadian whisky while working in Alberta. The Albertans, in turn, brought it with them when the job took them to Texas. In the process, Canadian has become the unofficial whisky of the oil worker on both sides of the border.
Oil refineries in Texas City, are strikingly similar to whisky distilleries. The heart of these refineries, the column still, is basically a modification of the column that Irish excise man, Aeneas Coffey patented back in 1830. Coffey had whisky in mind when he invented his still. However, engineers in America have adapted Coffey's invention to distil petroleum. Unlike a pot still, a column still can be tuned to separate myriads of specific components in crude oil (or fermented mash). Given the acres of stills operating in Texas city alone, one can only wonder at how tiny even the largest whisky distillery seems by comparison. Sadly, there are no royalties as his patent has now expired.
Single Barrels for Texas
A special whisky has brought me to Texas but first I stop at a bar called Reserve 101 in the heart of Houston. With 340 bottles on the bar and a remarkably knowledgeable staff, Reserve 101 is the whisky hub of the state. I'm chatting with owner, Mike Raymond while Dave Broom entertains the press.
"We've been trying to get Dave here for three years for a tasting," Mike tells me, "we're really excited." I nod. I'm excited to see Dave again, too. We are confederates in a wonderful new Canadian whisky, and Texas is its launching ground. I'm keen to bring him up to date.
It is just over a year since Dave and I shared a eureka moment at the Crown Royal Distillery in Gimli, Manitoba. Among a slew of barrel samples, we found a real doozey.
"You have to bottle this," Dave exclaimed before the words could fall out of my gaping mouth. Distillery manager, Pauline Rooney took our suggestion to heart. By November, our discovery was in major stores right across Texas.
Distilled in Gimli, in North America's last remaining real Coffey still, Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel debuted as store-specific single barrel bottlings at 51.5 per cent ABV. Releasing single barrels is not common with Canadian whiskies. Automated whisky dumping processes that accommodate multibarrel pallets, and bottling lines that fill 500 bottles a minute do not foster such small offerings. All the same, connoisseurs never forgot the independent Bush Pilot's Reserve single barrel Canadian whisky from the 1990s - now considered the connoisseur's Holy Grail. Sazerac followed several years ago with Caribou Crossing, a much-loved single barrel bottling that defies the mould in its consistency across barrels.
However, Hand Selected Barrel is the first such offering ever, from a major distillery, and what a kickoff! Top retailers across Texas were presented with a range of samples and invited to select their individual barrels.
"We tasted the whisky and we simply had to have it for our customers," Suraj Singh of Premier Fine Wine and Spirits tells me. "We sell more half gallons of Crown Royal here than anything," he continues, his eyes twinkling, "and we knew this whisky was very special." "We went through about seven barrels and this is the one we selected." It's been a few months but Singh still can barely contain his enthusiasm. "I love the way it starts a little soft and ends huge and complex. What a way to mesh several styles of whisky in one bottle. We're half way through it already. We had a guy from Missouri buy a bottle and take it home. He came back a few weeks later and bought seven more. I like feedback like that." Singh's selection is a luxurious, complex beauty with a fresh crispness that buttresses rye-forward cedar, pepper and tropical fruit. His choice reflects his taste in whisky. Other stores too show their personalities in their individual selections. Spec's barrel, for instance, overflows with caramel, spice and vanilla. Nosing it is reminiscent of entering a long sealed Bourbon warehouse. The palate follows with typical Bourbon richness and the slipperiness of corn. Spec's buyers clearly favour the Bourbon end of the spectrum.
Richard's Spirits and Fine Wines, on the other hand, opted for a barrel that followed closely in the Canadian tradition of Crown Royal. Spicy, creamy and sweet, it is the smoothest Hand Selected Barrel I've tasted. As connoisseur, George Jetson remarked while tasting the range, "It's probably going to find its way into ginger ale." That thought would warm the cockles of Dave Broom's heart. He's a strong proponent of mixing even the most singular of whiskies, that less daring souls, would sip neat.
Testing the logistics
With 1.4 million barrels of the best selling Canadian whisky in the world, the brand managers for Crown Royal are used to dealing with volume. So, after bottling a few barrels they decided they needed to check the logistics by tracking a barrel through the process from selection to final delivery. Why not involve Dave and I, the guys who found it in the first place? Unfortunately (for him), Dave lives in England while Gimli Distillery is here in Canada - my home turf. To my great delight, I became the guinea pig to test the system.
Manager, Dwayne Kozlowski met me one frigid December morning at the distillery. He had prepared a number of samples for me to try. At 63% barrel strength, they were all great. How was I to choose just one? Wisely, Dwayne diluted them down to 23% - tasting strength - and soon the differences became obvious. I chose one that was rich in cedary wood, bananas and tropical fruits, with hints of bitter tannins and a voluptuous creamy toffeeness, and I named it Luscious Butterscotch.
Now, six months later, my bottles and barrel have been delivered and I'm in Houston, biting my nails at Jetson's multi-head-to-head tasting. The other barrels have varied greatly but all are worthy selections. Mine is up last. Steeling myself, I take a sip and feel a wave of relief. Each store has chosen its favourite and I have chosen mine, and here, with them all on the table, I still like mine best.
Sometimes, bigger really is better
Canadian whisky lovers have railed at the seeming incongruity of Hand Selected Barrel being available in Texas but not in Canada. So, maybe it's time for a maths lesson. Provincial taxes make whisky that is expensive to produce, very expensive to buy in Canada, reducing demand for high-end whisky to an unsupportable trickle. Moreover, the US buys 75 per cent of the whisky we make in Canada while we consume just 15 per cent of it at home. With a 5:1 ratio of sales they get first dibs on the special ones. It's simple economics. And in the US, no market is bigger than Texas. Everything is bigger in Texas, and when it comes to whisky, sometimes it's better too.
Davin de Kergommeaux is the author of the award-winning book Canadian Whisky: The Portable Expert which you can buy through Whisky Magazine.
Six Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrels
HSB for Spec's Liquor Store
Caramel and spice with loads of sweet wood and vanilla. Soft with a peppery bite. Tropical fruit and wood and a slight hardness. Bourbonesque.
HSB for WB Liquors
Opens slowly on butterscotch, vanilla, hints of hot spices, pine pitch. Typical Crown Royal wood and broad cornwhisky Bourbon notes. No burn even undiluted.
HSB for Richard's Spirits & Fine Wines
Soft spicy nose. Early sweetness quickly gains hot, spicy momentum but smoothness still defines it. With water, hints of Bourbon start to emerge.
HSB for Premiere Fine Wine & Spirits
Full nose, a bit oily with a fresh, crisp, peppery palate. Mild pulling tannins, new red cedar, grape gum and the fruity, spicy hardness of rye.
HSB for Goody Goody Liquor Store
Caramel nose and palate then clean barrel notes, woody spices, sandalwood, a slight pleasing bitterness and a peppery spicy finish. Very much rye.
HSB for Davin de Kergommeaux
Silky smooth butterscotch with earthy, vegetal tones, cords of cut wood, baking spices, white pepper, and cappuccino with tropical fruit salad and bananas.