For a few weeks in late 2015 Crown Royal's Northern Harvest Rye whisky was making headlines around the world as Jim Murray's "World Whisky of the Year 2016" in his yearly Whisky Bible. His pronouncement sparked controversy in the industry and curiosity among consumers to seek out the whisky from Gimli, Manitoba. While Murray was criticized roundly by "whisky experts" and afficionados for being intentionally "controversial" as a way to both garner attention for himself and sell copies of his book, his full-throated praise for Northern Harvest Rye was readily received by the general public who were eager to try the latest and greatest on the Canadian whisky landscape.
In a classic rhetorical reversal, Mr Murray opined: "to be honest, I had been considering actually demoting Canadian whisky from having its own chapter in the Bible The quality of Canadian has been disappointing me for some time with too many non-whisky products, like fruit juice or wine, being added to give a softer flavour...Then Crown Royal Northern Harvest pops up out of nowhere and changes the game..To say this is a masterpiece is barely doing it justice." Made with a higher proportion of rye than typically found in mass-market Canadian whisky, Northern Harvest Rye boasts an impressive 90% rye content and is bottled at a respectable 45% ABV.
Within days, shortages of Northern Harvest Rye were being reported all across Canada as seemingly everyone wanted to get a bottle or two for the upcoming holiday season and see "what all the fuss was about." Here in Ontario, 96,000 bottles of the stuff were sold in December and it wasn't until February 2016 when stocks were replenished in the LCBO. While we gave it a mention as a "topical conversation piece for your whisky-loving friend" in the 2015 Gift Buyer's Guide as we weren't able to give it a full review at the time of publishing. Now that the dust has settled and the fervour has cooled, it's time to give this whisky a somewhat sober second look.
Nose: Airy and perfumed, like pink bubblegum and red Nibs in wet straw.
Palate: Light-bodied with an astringent edge. Fruity flavours dominate the palate like a boozy marzipan twisted with cherry lozenge, red licorice and orange marmalade. Notes of maple butter and caramel gradually build under the brash and medicinal tinge of the dram.
Finish: Medium-long finish that splits quickly on the tongue and lingers on the sides with a residue of clove spice and ashy, candied, fruit.
Overall: Crown Royal has made a flavourful rye-forward whisky with more character than most of their current product line. Sure, they've got "apple" infused and "maple" sweetened offerings but frankly, those tricks are for kids. Northern Harvest Rye is a standout whisky for Crown Royal in an otherwise moribund product line and might just be their best way to stay relevant in the Canadian whisky scene. That said, I'm not overly fussed about it and neither was the tasting panel. Personally, I didn't find that it paired well with any of my traditional "go-to" whisky snacks (cheese, crackers/breads, cured meats, cookies or cakes) and I found it off-puttingly hot and thin on the palate. After tasting Northern Harvest Rye blind against another Canadian whisky, 40 Creek's Copper Pot Reserve (a different rye content - I know!), the panel was split with half preferring one to the other, but only marginally. It's fairly priced, for now, in the LCBO at $34.95 and offers good value especially for those who are just getting started with high rye content whiskies.