Created in 1939 as a liquid tribute for the visit to Canada of King George & Queen Elizabeth (Harry’s great-grandparents, in other words), Crown Royal was a seriously hifalutin whisky for its time. A blend of fifty Canadian whiskies, back when blended Canadian was the cream of the boozy crop, it tasted smooth as silk and went down easy, without any burn, back when smooth was the name of the whisky game. With a fancy-shmancy bottle nestled in an iconic purple felt pouch, Crown Royal staked its claim as The Good Stuff right off the bat. Available only in Canada for a quarter century, it finally crossed the border to the U.S. and beyond in the 1960s, and it’s still the best-selling Canadian whisky in the world. But times change and vibes change. Old-school Canadian whisky fell out of vogue, and Crown Royal Deluxe went from top-shelf hooch to… well, one of the more recent occasions it was served to me was at a party on a sandbar where we all swigged it out of the bottle.
The last couple of decades, Crown Royal has followed a path trod by many a whisky brand. They went after the bottom line with canned cocktails and sickly sweet flavored expressions that are catnip to the frat party set and people who don’t really like whisky (or fruit flavors that taste like real fruit). But they also went after the connoisseurs with bottlings that appealed to the modern palate, like Cornerstone Blend and Northern Harvest, the latter of which was voted World Whisky of the Year in Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible in 2016. It was a move which seemed calculated to stir up the universe of whisky snobs, which it did. But Northern Harvest was, and is, delicious and reasonably priced, and worth your time no matter what you think of Canadian whisky (or the since-disgraced Jim Murray, for that matter).
The CR crew has also released some limited editions targeted at the collectors’ market, like the pair of XR blends featuring whiskies from now-shuttered distilleries. And now we have Crown Royal 29 Years Extra Rare, the oldest Crown Royal ever bottled. According to the press release, it’s their “signature rye mashbill,” distilled and blended sometime around the end of the George H.W. Bush administration or the beginning of the Clinton years, and left to age since then. Crown Royal doesn’t disclose how long its flagship whisky spends in the barrel (”patiently aged” is about as detailed as it gets), but it’s got to be a lot less than 29 years, because this is a horse of a very different color.
No matter how many Hand Selected Barrels and Northern Harvests I’ve tasted, whenever I crack open a Crown Royal I expect that classic CR Deluxe flavor — fruity, viscous, with a minimum of spice and barely a trace of heat on the finish. So it took a few sips for me to get accustomed to this one. First off, you can actually taste the alcohol — it is 46% ABV, after all. And secondly, you can actually taste the rye. And thirdly… well, I could go on and on about how un-Crown Royal this whisky is. The ripe dark berry notes are more bright orange and banana. It’s more macho, a muscle-flexer, a whisky drinker’s whisky. All of which is a little off-putting for me. In fact, I wasn’t even sure I liked it on first taste. Which kept me going back to it, in order to figure it out. And then I realized I was looking forward to revisiting it, which means that, yeah, I do like it. In fact, I like it a lot — it’s become a go-to when I just want to kick back and have a glass of something amber. Although the first sip still throws me a little every time.
Is Crown Royal 29 worth the $400 it’ll run you (that’s the suggested retail price; I’ve seen it selling for twice that online)? If you’re a collector, most likely — it’s limited to 6,000 bottles and the packaging alone is fancy as heck, even for this traditionally fancy brand. If you want to actually drink it rather than put it on your shelf as a prize artifact/investment, there are better whiskies out there for less money. But if, like me, you have a soft spot for the classic old-school Canadian brands, you’d do well to consider it.
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