Bottom Line at the Top: the press release would have us believe this is a rye designed to compete in the top shelf with other powerful ryes in classic cocktails. After trying, we disagree entirely. Crown is softer than those elite ryes and we don't believe designed or desirable to take that field. Rather, this is a whisky that mixes in common-man cocktails in ways that make them far better than Big Market Whiskey like Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. Mix it with cola; put it in ginger ale; even put it on ice. It's edgier than regular Crown Royal and better executed than the Big Market brands. It's a better selection for people with better things to do with their time than worry about the pedigree of the grain and the name of the tree that made the barrel. For the common man, our hearty recommendations.
Once you get past the mystique of Crown Royal—and convince the uninitiated that it's a Canadian Whisky and not a bourbon (a point of trivia where the Proof66 partnership has profited greatly from winning wagers in airport bars)—Canadian whisky as a brand is in a bit of a poor reputation among the snobs and liqueratti of the world. Part of it is because Canadian whisky is allowed to introduce a percentage of flavoring to smooth out the profile and this tends to bother the purists. It's not exactly deserved, as you'll see in a moment.
For the record, there were 27 entries in the Canadian Whisky category and only 5 of them received a double gold medal (18%). Compare that to bourbon, which had 92 submissions and had 17 double gold awards (18%). So the ratios of were the same... there are simply far fewer entries. In our database, the top 10 Canadian whiskies range from a score of 614 to 673. Meanwhile, the top American whiskeys are 663 to 742. From that standpoint, Canada has some work to do in order to change the mindset. This is a touch disappointing, though, since the press release would have us believe that it was designed for classic cocktails like the Manhattan, Old Fashioned, and Buck.
Enter Northern Harvest Rye. On introduction, it picked up a double gold medal at the 2015 San Francisco World Spirits Competition. We love rye and that got us rather excited. We've tasted a lot of great ryes. Can Crown Royal really, truly, honestly stand up to Knob Creek, Whistle Pig (itself, a Canadian rye), High West, or even Bulleit? If it can, it'd be a welcome jewel for the crown.
Crown Royal Northern Rye vs a Whole Host of Rye Whiskey
Rye has a strong, robust, often astringent and dry flavor. Rye enthusiasts love that. One can usually pick rye out of a lineup with great ease and it's a symbol of liquor macho to drink it. Its strong flavors tend to be recommended in classic cocktails like the Old Fashioned and the Sazerac. Lining it up against some of the luminaries, we expect it to be a bit sweeter, a bit smoother, but with a bit of edge because Crown went ahead and bottled it at 90 proof (a welcome decision from our standpoint).
What did we learn from this? Northern Harvest turns what we've often regarded as an overly smooth and potentially boring whisky in regular Crown Royal and Crown Royal Reserve into something that's worthwhile seeking out and drinking. It's better than several ryes on the market and we support the award it got from San Francisco. But it will need to have the robust flavors that big-time rye drinkers are looking for to truly compete in that market segment. It's the difference between heavy peat scotches for cigar smokers and blended or Lowlands scotches for the rest of us.
Crown Royal Rye vs Knob Creek Rye in an Old Fashioned Cocktail
An Old Fashioned is one of the signature cocktails of many bars and designed to showcase great whiskey. Rye is considered by many purists to be the, single requirement for the perfect recipe (of which there are countless variations). Wanting to test if the smooth, subtle Crown Royal could stand up to dilution, we mixed ours with heavy doses of agave syrup (in lieu of simple syrup), and extra dashes of both angostura and orange bitters. It's a bit of an unfair fight because the Knob Creek clocks in at 100 proof compared to the Crown's 90... but after all, the bartender's jigger isn't going to adjust when you order it on a night out!
In the Crown Royal, the sweetened orange sings out of the glass, though mostly unencumbered by any whiskey notes. The drink is too sweet (we designed it that way) and the rye whiskey largely vanishes in the syrupy though pleasant concoction. It's definitely not vodka or rum in there... we would guess whiskey! But it's not clearly rye either.
In the Knob Creek, there's a special rye note girding the sweetened and spicy orange. It's the long, low sing of the cello in the symphony... recognizable without intruding. It's a drink that's too sweet... but it's still a drink that's good. For those who like soda water on top, that finished this particular drink rather well and the Knob Creek still held up.
What did we learn: as we expected, the softer sweeter Crown Royal vanishes a bit with dilution where the Knob Creek holds firm. This is about the least surprising result we've ever had in these sort of trials and a signal to the design of the structure of the whiskey (in the case of Knob Creek) or whisky (in the case of Crown Royal). For rye fans of the Old Fashioned, you'll probably want to commit to a more robust flavor profile.
Crown Royal Norther Harvest Rye vs High West Double Rye in a Manhattan Cocktail
Manhattans are one of those drinks that were once so popular and still have such a dedicated following but we don't entirely get. The classic recipe calls for 2 parts whisky and 1 part sweet vermouth (we used the esteemed Vya) with a couple dashes of Angostura bitters. That's heavy on the vermouth and normally we'd ratchet that way back but this is supposed to be a great vermouth and a great whisky that's designed to stand up. So let's see.
High West Double Rye comes out of Utah and has won a fair bit of acclaim in its own right. We've always liked their Double Rye for the aged, tempered flavors that still pay religious attention to the rye grain. It's the stylish kind of rye that Rye People look for and Crown needs to compete with. In a Manhattan, you can see why people reach for vermouth as a softening influence on the rye. It adds a bit of a wine-grape warmth to the spirit that makes it a less aggressive spirit. The vermouth overwhelms a bit for our tastes on the palate but the finish is all rye... with the High West, you can keep tasting the rye long after the flavors of the vermouth fade.
The Crown Rye presented some rye aromas on the nose. That was nice; it makes one crave the drink a bit, particularly if you like rye in the first place. The vermouth overwhelms the whisky absent a drying note on the finish. Where'd the whisky go? We're not sure... it's just gone. There is Dizzie Gillespie playing in a jazz band at a smoky bar and then there's Dizzie Gillespie playing in a marching band outside at the Rose Bowl. Sometimes it doesn't matter how good the whisky is, it's going to be mostly lost. In this case, Crown is playing in the Rose Bowl.
What we learned: like the Old Fashioned, Crown makes a good rye that makes very decent cocktails but it has trouble keeping its feet in the varsity leagues. We're comparing it to higher proofed and more aggressive American rye styles but this is the trouble that Canadian whisky has always faced: it's a bit muted in comparison. Not bad at all—and we mean that... we finished the drink to the dregs after all!—but an unqualified safe choice.
Crown Royal Norther Harvest Rye vs Jack Daniels in Coke
Whiskey snobs might enjoy Knob Creek Rye but perhaps go elsewhere for their rye fetish. Jack, one the other hand, is that well-know bastion of safety for anyone who's ever just blurted out "Jack and Coke" at a bar. In fact, many people grow to love JD for exactly the rough edges that might repel the critics. Perhaps a little rye grain in the otherwise smooth profile of Crown might be just the thing to entice the JD crowd away from their safety? We mixed ours with 2 parts Coke to 1 part whisky to truly appreciate the flavor.
JD and Coke is... well, it's JD Coke. Just about anyone who's ever had a drink has, at one time or another, had JD and coke. You know without us having to tell you about the odd taste, the bitterness counteracting the corn syrup, the harsh finish, the cry for more if you're of a certain temperament. What would move you out of this comfort zone of predictability and perverse pride?
Crown Royal Rye and Coke was actually, almost a drink that snobs would like. It should most definitely appeal to the JD crowd. It has a bit of a bite and a kick that announces itself with the cola but still offers a softer profile, particularly on the finish, that makes the drink go down easier. Again, whiskey snobs need not apply but this is a drink calling out to the masses. Where Crown and Coke might be too easy drinking, Crown Rye and Coke is something different entirely.
What we learned: hey, you, JD fan! Yes, we're talking to you! If you somehow found your way to this website, then let us help you! There are better options and this is one! Crown RYE! It's three letters... try it out. Crown RYE. Ask for it. It is almost 13% more alcohol content than JD; it tastes better than JD; and it's better executed than JD. Go ahead... live a little. Stray outside that box just one... little... step and enjoy the rewards!
Neal MacDonald, Editor
[Disclaimer: we were provided a 350ml bottle Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye for review purposes. All other products mentioned here were acquired on our own.]