Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: Crown Royal Black Canadian Whisky

Colonial Tavern, Toronto, Nov. 21, 1977 Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin

Let's say I have the opportunity to jam with B.B. King on some blues classics. And let's go further and say Mr. King will graciously play rhythm guitar and while I lay down some lead with my trusty axe.  The notes I hit have to be within the framework or the accepted scales (ie. 12-bar blues) or conventions of blues music.  Otherwise, the jam session will not be a blues jam, just a cacophonous disaster similar to the sounds of flying metal of a Russian satellite hurtling towards earth or Judge Judy chewing out a poor, hapless litigant.  Of course, I can take some chances and toss in some flamenco or maybe bluegrass, but I can't deviate too far.

For example, I cannot, midway through The Thrill Is Gone launch into chunks of a Randy Rhoad's guitar solo taken from his spellbinding performance of Suicide Solution with Ozzy Osbourne.

I just can't do that!  I have too much respect for Mr. King (and the memory  of the late Mr. Rhoads) and besides, the Blues jam would be ruined.

I'm all for innovation, but hey, ya gotta work within a certain framework or paradigm (I can't believe I just uttered that pretentious word).  If you completely disregard your context, you may succeed (very remote chance) or fail miserably (sadly more than likely).

Crown Royal Black Canadian Whisky

Crown Royal (click here for my review) is a towering classic Canadian whisky.  Enormously popular in Canada, the US and UK for its light, delicate fruit, vanilla, slight oak and a zing of rye that is smooth and satisfying to the casual drinker and the whisky nut.  A classic right?  So, why mess with a classic?  Well, if you are multinational company like Diageo (owner of the brand), you are always looking for ways to make more money.  Hence, product line extensions.

Currently, there are six brand variations available: Crown Royal Deluxe (standard bottling); Crown Royal Black; Crown Royal Limited Edition; Crown Royal Reserve; Cask 16; and Crown Royal XR.  Obviously there is money in extending a brand line.  Just ask the suits that own the Famous Grouse brand.  Trouble is . . . you have to make every new edition a little different, innovative, but not to the point that you disconnect from the conventions of your beverage that put you on the map in the first place.  Kinda like my imaginary jam session with B.B. King.

Crown Royal Black is the latest extension of the product line.  Introduced in April 2010 in the United States.  

The concept behind Crown Royal Black is to deliver a robust, full-bodied Canadian whisky with heavy helpings of oak, higher strength (90 proof) and bourbon notes.  Bourbon notes?  Yeah.  But before we address that attempt at innovation in Canadian whisky, let's deal with the most alarming issue when you pour yourself a drink.

It's dark.  I mean seriously dark, amber, and opaque, like divining your significant other's reason for the blackest of moods without the use of words.

What's going on here?  I think serious amounts of E150 (spirit caramel) were added to create the dark near coffee color.  I am not aware of any Canadian whisky or scotch for that matter that is dark as this whisky.  Even 25 year old single malts are not this dark.  An additive was used to get it that dark.  No doubt about it.  That being said, my first reaction is "so what?"  Adding caramel is usually in amounts that is not discernible to taste.  It is done to make the spirit more appealing to the eye and imply considerable aging.  In any case, I think they went over board on this one.

Nose (undiluted)
Cherries, vanilla, floral and perfumed.  Pleasant, masculine, but not what I would call 'refined' or 'memorable.'

Palate (undiluted)
Molasses, dark Christmas fruit cake with lots of rum in the recipe, vanilla, oak and then . . . WTF!(#*@Y*$(:  bourbon?  Yeah, serious bourbon notes.  That sure threw me for a curve.  It is down right odd to taste this amount of bourbon in a Canadian whisky.  If that is not weird enough, you get serious coca cola flavors and that unmistakable soda fizz too.

Finish (undiluted)
The finish is rum like.  I am talking Havana Club 7 years with more of that coca-cola-esque fizz/nip.

General Impressions
If this was served to me in a blind tasting, I would guess it was either an aged, dark rum or a bourbon of some kind.  I would never think of it as a Canadian whisky.  Matter of fact, if they lifted the blindfold off me, I would be shocked to see that I was drinking from a bottle labelled "Crown Royal," as Crown Royal Black has no connection with the standard Crown Royal flavor profile.  None, zero, nada.  The only similarities between these two spirits is the sharing of the same brand name, bottle shape and multinational corporate parent (Diageo).

Crown Royal Black strikes me as a genuine attempt by the master blender to break new ground, by blending a more robust Canadian whisky.  The trouble is that the bourbon notes are over the top, followed by dark rum tastes that goes too far from what makes a Canadian whisky great.  It is not wise to tamper with the immutable conventions of Canadian whisky, but unfortunately they have to their detriment.

I drink this and I am truly baffled.  Does this spirit want to be a rum or a bourbon?  A real existential crisis of sorts is going on.  An unpleasant exorcism is needed from my liquor cabinet.

In general, Canadian whisky is a medium bodied, smooth with a flourish of the spices of rye spirit.  Sure there can be variations where some whiskies are heavier than others or more spiced, but the paradigm does not permit huge bourbon flavors or rum notes.  If you want rum, buy rum.  If you want bourbon, buy American bourbon.  Drink Crown Royal Black and you will not know what to make of it.

On the positive side: (1) it is not biting, in spite of being 90 proof, (2) relatively smooth; (3) works as a party drink on the rocks or with mix.  If you visit the Crown Royal website, they even recommend drinking this on the rocks.  This is a party drink.  It is not intended as a companion to profound fire side chats to be consumed neat as the flames lick the logs and cast off interesting shadows.

For me, Crown Royal Black is an experiment that has failed.  It is baffling, like trying to figure out the meaning of REM lyrics.  The master blender needs to take note of how Randy Rhodes took the conventions of heavy metal guitar to new bounds by gently stretching with a few classical guitar landmarks (scales, minor keys, etc.), but not to the point of confusing the listener.  They still knew they were listening to a great heavy metal song.  Me, I am confused.  I am not sure I am drinking Canadian whisky, but rather some horrible bastardization that can't decide if it wants to be bourbon or dark rum.

There are fans of this whisky, but clearly I am not one of them.  For an alternative opinion try the Canadian Whisky site (click here) for a review by it's critic, Davin de Kergommeaux.


Jason Debly

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2011. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission.  Of course, the song "Suicide Solution" belongs to Ozzy Osbourne and the Youtube link is posted merely for nostalgic and educational purposes.  Moreover, all rights concerning the photo of B.B. King are held by the photographer, Jean-Luc Ourlin.


  1. Good review - amazingly, I actually followed the strange logic of your story! Canada is great, but Canadian whisky baffles me. It's like they can't decide if they want to be "whisky" or "liquor." I keep trying different Canadians expecting whisky but getting something else. As for Crown Royal Black, I think that much caramel color is definitely pushing the limits of whisky. I think you're right calling it a party drink. Thanks for warning us!

  2. Hi Ryan,

    There are good Canadian whiskies. They are just not well promoted by the drinks industry. They lack the cachet of scotch whisky, partly due to the lower price and partly due to many poor examples readily available. So, here's a list of great Canadian whiskies you may want to try sometime:

    (1) Gibson's Finest 18 yrs (excellent but poor US distribution);
    (2) Crown Royal (standard bottling);
    (3) Crown Royal XR (very expensive, but excellent);
    (4) Wiser's Very Old 18yrs;
    (5) Wiser's Red Letter (expensive but great);
    (6) Whistle Pig (reasonably priced)
    (7) Canadian Club 20yrs



  3. Thanks Jason. Most of those are sadly not available to me, and the XR is probably out of my price range, but I'll keep my eye open. Maybe I'll check out the Cask 16 sometime, which is about half the price of XR. I've heard that Whistle Pig is from Canada but is bottled as a "Vermont Whisky," at least here in the states. I guess I'm not the only one who is confused by Canadian Whisky, so they decided they'd be better off branding it as Vermont?

  4. Tried this last year at Hopscotch in Vancouver. Found it cloying, and perhaps I imagined it, but where you got Cola notes, I got maple. This is nasty stuff, I can only believe that that they are trying to appeal to a much younger crowd.

  5. What a great review. I can really tell how you felt about this. I too faced the "is-it-rum-or-is-it-bourbon" dilemma. And your photos are really well done. Thanks also for the plug at the end.

    I think Crown Royal Black has succeeded in introducing a new demographic to Canadian whisky. An inside source (who admittedly sells Crown) told me it was the most successful launch of any new spirit in the U.S. in 2010. It beat it's closest rival, a vodka, by a margin of 2 to 1, so obviously a lot of people like it. Still, I don't think the connoisseurs are going nuts over it.

    On WhistlePig. This is 100% Canadian whisky distilled in Canada by Canadians. The guys in Shoreham Vermont buy it in bulk (but small, hand-selected batches) and hand bottle it themselves. The only thing Vermont about it is where it is put into bottles. Their distiller, Dave Pickerell, has gone on record at least half a dozen times saying essentially that Canadian rye is the best rye whisky in the world. He should know. Until recently he also made Maker's Mark.

  6. It's the end of the world as we know it.

  7. Jason, I'm torn on this review, which I had not read until today. Part of me sympathizes with the guy who bought CR-B and was disappointed with its surprising rum nature. Fair enough for unfair surprises, perhaps. The other part of me says Get Over It. After all, we know you can like rum and bourbon stylings in your glass plenty too. Defeat this self-imposed machine-in-the-mind that limits you, the construct that insists Fords must not run as well as Hondas, and that Canadian whiskey must taste and smell only in ways I'm accustomed to seeing. I really can't tell if you really liked the dram - label aside - or not frankly, the opinion is too shrouded in angst. Can you like a Cabernet that tasted like a fine Cote Rotie ? Free yourself. JK

    1. I hear where you are coming from.

      I probably should have chosen words that conveyed my dislike of Crown Royal Black even if it was a rum. As a rum I find it too sweet and heavy on the caramel.

      As a whisky . . . well, it is not even recognizable as whisky to me.

      Your analogy of Hondas and Fords are within the same class, namely automobiles.

      For me, Crown Royal Black is not whisky. It is some rum like substance.

      Clearly I am not a fan, but many are. Sales have been extremely strong.

  8. coca cola? the f... are you drinkin... this some real whisky... crown is king and this has more complexity than og crown.. period