In the world of Canadian whisky, Crown Royal is king. It’s the best-selling Canadian whisky in the world, available at fine dining restaurants, on airplanes, and on the shelves of your local Walmart. Its vast array of bottlings includes critically acclaimed spirits as well as hugely popular flavored whiskies that “serious” drinkers like to roll their eyes at—but, according to national brand ambassador Stephen Wilson, are driving about half of all growth in the Canadian whisky category.
The Crown Royal brand traces its history back to 1939, when Seagram’s introduced a new product in honor of a visit from Britain’s monarchs, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Legend has it Seagram’s tried more than 600 blends before settling on the final concoction, packaged in a bottle shaped like a quilted crown and packaged in a purple pouch, a color long associated with royalty. Stephen demurred when I asked him if today’s Crown Royal bears much resemblance to that first edition, but he did say, “Our goal is to create a consistent blend year after year.”
Produced in Gimli, Manitoba, these days Crown Royal is owned by spirits giant Diageo. Every bottle of Crown Royal contains some combination of five different individual whiskies, aged in a combination of new and used casks. Like keys on a piano, each of these whiskies gives blenders a different note to harmonize or emphasize. “Our ‘bourbon style’ provides the floral, grainy notes while our ‘rye’ shines through with a rich spiciness,” explains Stephen. “And our ‘corn based whiskies,’ which are distilled by two different methods, provide Crown Royal with its signature creamy mouth feel.”
Crown Royal was only available in Canada for the first few decades of the brand’s existence. In 1964, the first bottles were exported to the United States, where it quickly caught on as an easygoing alternative to “old-fashioned” whiskeys like rye, bourbon, and single malt. Today, it’s practically synonymous with Canadian whisky in the United States, and some markets—including Texas and parts of the South—are particularly smitten with the stuff, partially attributable to the energy industry link between Canada and the Gulf of Mexico. “As Canadian oil workers migrated to Houston to work on the oil rigs in the sixties, they brought Crown Royal with them as their whisky of choice,” explains Stephen.
I think we’ve all had a shot or two of Crown Royal at a friendly local or around a campfire someplace, but not everybody is familiar with the brand’s many variants and product extensions. So, for this story, I tasted five different Crown Royal whiskies with two different questions in my mind. First, what’s the common thread that ties together all of Crown Royal’s products? And second, if you love the standard Crown Royal Deluxe and you’re looking for a special occasion bottle, which one of the more high-falutin’ Crown Royals will serve you best?
Crown Royal Deluxe
The classic Crown Royal, Crown Royal Deluxe comes in the signature purple pouch and can be found virtually everywhere.
The first sniff reveals a woody, sweet, light-bodied aroma with citrus and caramel. On the palate, it’s quite sweet, with sweet tea, caramel, vanilla, cola, prunes, and moderate oak spice, culminating in a crisp, straightforward finish.
Round and soft, this is an unchallenging, easy-drinking whisky that may leave “serious” drinkers bored, but sure makes a great highball.
Crown Royal Black
Packaged in—of course—a black bag, Crown Royal Black is Gimli’s answer to bourbon drinkers.
The nose delivers blue Tootsie pops, chocolate, dried blueberries, and tons of vanilla. A cola and tea-inflected entry segues to a sweet palate with layers of brown sugar, toffee, and dark caramel. The finish is longer and fruitier than the Deluxe.
Overall, Crown Royal Black is quite bourbon-like, but with that mysteriously unctuous signature Crown Royal texture. Bottled at 90 proof, this is an easy grab for cocktails.
Crown Royal Reserve
We’re entering more rarified territory here. This “reserve grade blend” is part of the Master Series, and comes in a taupe pouch that cinches beneath the cap, making it look like a little Victorian ruffle.
The nose is quite rye-inflected, with cinnamon, clove, and green herbs. The palate is quite soft and mellow, with the least sugary sweetness thus far. Some vegetal green notes, charred oak tones, and a leesey, almost Chardonnay-like quality make for a surprisingly sophisticated experience. With soda water, it becomes fizzing cream soda.
Understated and unique, this is a surprise favorite.
Crown Royal XO
Finished in Cognac casks, Crown Royal XO comes in a grey pouch that, like the reserve, cinches below the neck.
It’s like sticking your snout into a bag full of Halloween Candy. There’s sweet cinnamon, clove, banana runts, waxy chocolate, tootsie rolls, grape hard candy, and vanilla. The first sip is mellow and sweet—the sweetest of the bunch—yet a bit vaporous in the finish. Soda water elevates this whisky to pop-level sweetness, like a grape-flavored oak soda.
Cognac-finished whiskies can often skew oddly sweet and candy like (see: Brenne), and Crown Royal XO is no exception. For the drinker with a serious sweet tooth only.
Crown Royal XR
Containing whisky from the now-closed LaSalle Distillery in Quebec, which ceased production in 1993, Crown Royal XR represents the pinnacle of my tasting. It comes in a substantial presentation box, with the rococo bottle embedded on a moulded pillow inside a velvety blue pouch.
A buttery, sweet nose of butterscotch, grape candy, and mild oak also introduces a rancio-like hint of anchoring walnut oil. This is a different creature than the other Crown Royals, with bigger, richer flavors: coconut, vanilla, nuts, and hard candy, and a real spice to balance that ever-present Crown Royal sweetness. Integrated oak and leather make an appearance in the finish.
Elegant and refined, this is the 7-Series of Crown Royal, cushy leather seats, full-sized chassis and all.
After several exhaustive taste testing sessions, as well as an illuminating exchange with Stephen, I think I’ve settled upon some answers. The thing that makes Crown Royal, well, Crown Royal is ease; every single Crown Royal whisky I’ve ever tasted is almost startlingly easy to drink. Glug an ounce or two into a rocks glass, settle back with an Endeavour re-run, and glance down halfway through at an empty vessel. How did that happen?
Not everybody is looking for an easy sipper, but many are, and Crown Royal fits the bill without dumbing it down. “Accessibility has been core to the appeal of Crown Royal – and to an extent, the broader Canadian whisky category,” says Stephen. “These same consumers have told us time and time again that even though they’re new to the category, they appreciate offerings rich in tradition, quality and craftsmanship.”
Now, onto the more interesting of the two questions. If you’re a Crown Royal loyalist looking for an accessible upgrade, you should probably buy a bottle of Crown Royal Reserve. If you’re ready to splurge, go ahead and pick up an XR. It’s a satisfying luxury experience and the stuff tastes just like you’d hope; a deeper, more resonant version of the easy-drinking Crown Royal you know and love. But if you’re into single malt or collectible bourbon, the XR might leave you bored—go pick up a Northern Harvest Rye, which you’ll probably enjoy a lot more.
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Margarett Waterbury is the author of Scotch: A Complete Introduction to Scotland's Whiskies and a full-time freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Whisky Advocate, Food and Wine, Spirited Magazine, Artisan Spirit, Edible Seattle, Sip Northwest, Civil Eats, Travel Oregon, Artisan Spirit, and many other publications. She is...