Grab some popcorn boys, these two Canadian whisky juggernauts are about to drop the gloves!
Crown Royal and Canadian Club are two of the top-selling Canadian whisky brands in the U.S. and globally. Around the world, whisky fans are familiar with what’s inside each of the recognizable bottles.
In this post, we’ll introduce both brands and help you understand some of the pros and cons of each so that you know exactly what to expect the next time you order a glass.
This is a story of whisky royalty.
It’s a tale that includes actual monarchs and two foreign-born entrepreneurs — one American, the other born in the Russian Empire — that help transform Canada into one of the highest-volume whisky production regions on the globe.
First, let’s meet Hiram Walker, born in 1816 in Massachusetts. As a young man, he moved to Detroit, Michigan, and was introduced to the art of distilling.
Even during the middle of the 19th century, the country’s shift towards alcohol prohibition became evident to Hiram. So, he built a distillery near Windsor, Ontario, on the other side of the Detroit River — about two miles away from downtown Detroit as the crow flies. He filled his first barrels in 1854.
The area around the sprawling campus of the Hiram Walker Distillery soon became known as Walkerville. It was built as a model town by the leading architects of the period. The handsomely laid-out grounds and its original buildings continue to be a tourist attraction to this day. In addition to supporting most of the workers in the town, Hiram Walker also paid for public works, buildings of praise and local fire and police departments.
The crown jewel in this idyllic community was what became known as the ‘whisky palace’ — a beautiful Renaissance-style building that was Hiram Walker’s headquarters. It continued to be a major tourist attraction and venue for weddings and corporate events until it was closed to the public in March 2017.
Hiram Walker was among the early innovators of barrel maturation. He would have been a late contemporary of Dr. James C. Crow, who was instrumental in advancing the art of aging spirit in wood barrels to mellow and improve the flavor of the finished whiskey offering.
Walkerville was a large-scale version of what might be considered a grains-to-glass operation today. It included farmland and flour mill, fermentation tanks and stills. It contained copper mills to build and maintain the equipment. It had a lumber yard, mill and cooperage to control the supply chain for barrels. And it included livestock, which benefited from spent grain from fermentation — which reduced waste.
Walker’s town also had its own ferry that crossed the Detroit River to the City of Detroit that played an important role in increasing sales during the Civil War. As spirits production decreased in both Confederate and Union states to support the war effort, eager patrons waited to purchase jugs and barrels each day as the ferry came from the Ontario side of the river.
Later, during American Prohibition, this route would be utilized by smugglers — including Al Capone — to ferry Canadian whisky into the United States for distribution to speakeasies across the countries.
And even later, Canadian Club became Don Draper’s favorite dram in the hit series Mad Men.
Walker’s whisky palace was fit for royalty, and so was his whisky. The distillery now known as Hiram Walker & Sons has been the only North American distillery to have been granted a royal warrant, and the whiskies made there have been a part of royal functions of the courts of British monarchs Queen Victoria, Edward VII, George V, George VI and Elizabeth II.
But Hiram Walker’s Canadian Club has not been the only Canadian whisky to grace the lips of British royalty. Crown Royal whisky was created as a gift to honor the first visit of a reigning monarch to North America.
It was a gift from Samuel Bronfman, another Canadian whisky innovator who was born abroad. Bronfman was born in 1889 in Bessarabia, in present-day Moldova — then part of the Russian Empire. His family fled the Czarist Russian pogroms to establish a life in Canada.
In 1903, Samuel Bronfman became a liquor distributor. Then, he expanded into distillation with the creation of the Distillers Corporation in 1924. Four years later, the company acquired Joseph E. Seagram & Sons — instantly making Bronfman one of the biggest names in whisky in North America.
When the royal family announced the first-ever trip by a reigning monarch to Canada in 1939, Bronfman decided to make a whisky worthy of the occasion. As the president of Seagram’s, he had access to arguably the most extensive stock of whisky barrels in Canada. So, he raided the warehouses to come up with a blend that impressed the royal court of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth — a group that included some of the most experienced aficionados of scotch whisky in the world.
The royals were presented with 10 cases of a whisky he called the Crown Royal that accompanied them on a train tour through Canada and the United States. Each hand-cut crystal decanter was encased in a royal purple satchel with actual gold stitching and cordage.
Because both Canadian Club and Crown Royal are blended whiskies, they contain various component whiskies with different proportions of grain varieties.
The mash bill is a term distillers use to describe the list of grain ingredients used during fermentation. For some whiskey — including single malt scotch and nearly all bourbon offerings — there is one single mash bill. But for blended whiskies, the producer can combine various mash bills to make a blend.
Canadian Club utilizes mash bills made of barley, rye and corn. They produce three types of whiskies that are matured and then blended to produce their signature product. The first is a 100 percent corn mash bill. The second is a 100 percent rye mash bill. And the third is a mix of rye, malted rye and malted barley. The corn whisky is considered a neutral grain whisky, while the whiskies utilizing rye and other grains are considered ‘flavouring’ whiskies.
The production team uses five mash bills to produce Crown Royal but does not list the specific grain proportions of corn, malted barley, wheat or rye for each.
Distillation & Production
The Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery features a combination of both column and copper pot stills. Each of the three component whiskeys mentioned in the mash bill section has a different distillation approach — offering the blending team a variety of flavors to use in their blends.
The 100 percent corn and 100 percent rye grain bill whiskies are produced on a continuous column still. When I began working in the spirits industry in 2013, it was common knowledge that — at that time — Alberta Distillers was the only distillery in Canada making 100 percent rye whisky. Rye mashes can be overly elastic, causing them to gum up the still, and many producers either didn’t want to deal with the mess or relied on some portion of malted barley to produce enzymes for saccharification.
Of course, a lot of that has changed with the dramatic increase in craft distillers since then. Today, several American craft products are made with a 100 percent rye mash bill — albeit at a fraction of Candian Club’s scale, using lab-produced enzymes and utilizing pot and/or combination stills that are much easier to clean and maintain between runs. The Hiram Walker & Sons site may have incorporated 100 percent rye runs into their production schedule.
But the Alberta Distillers facility near Calgary and the Hiram Walker & Sons plant are both owned by Beam-Suntory, so we can’t rule out a portion of Canadian Club being made in Calgary and shipped to the blending site via rail.
According to the website, the rye, malted rye, and malted barley mashes are produced using both a column and pot still. This might consist of a beer still that produces low wines that are then fed into a copper pot to might new make spirit — but it would be impossible to know for sure without speaking to a member of the production staff.
Crown Royal utilizes the 12 column stills on its site to produce a variety of flavor profiles. By combining various stills to differing mash bills, the team can develop 50 distinct component whiskies that are blended after maturation to produce Crown Royal’s various products. The facility, located in Manitoba, Alberta, draws water from Lake Winnipeg — a glacial lake offering a pristine water source for mashing, distillation and dilution.
Neither Canadian Club 1858 Original nor Crown Royal have age statements. Canadian law requires whisky to be matured for at least three years in oak barrels.
Canadian Club utilizes used bourbon barrels to mature all its various component whiskies. As a Beam Suntory brand, the barrels will come from the Beam family of brands — Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, Old Crow, Basil Hayden’s, Baker’s, Old Grand-Dad, etc.
Canadian Club offers 9, 12 and older bottlings. However, it emphasizes that the component blends are materially different — not just the same flavor profile aged for a more extended period.
Crown Royal is one of the largest North American whiskey brands. It has 1.5 million barrels aging in 51 barrel warehouses near Lake Manitoba. As a Diageo brand, it will pull used barrels from brands like Bulleit, Blade and Bow, George Dickel and I.W. Harper to develop its various aged whiskies for blending.
Ownership, Price Point & Value
Canadian Club is produced by Beam Suntory, the North American subsidiary of Tokyo-based drinks maker Suntory.
Canadian Club 1858’s price point of $14 for a 750mL bottle at 80-proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume, places it in the Value segment.
Crown Royal is produced by London-based Diageo PLC – the largest distilled spirits maker in the world.
Crown Royal’s price point of $29 for a 750mL bottle at 80-proof, or 40 percent ABV, places it at the lower end of the Premium segment.
Canadian Club 1858 Original Blended Canadian Whisky
Description: In the glass, Canadian Club has medium legs at 80-proof. It has a copper hue and russet color.
Nose: Relatively mellow oak, black pepper, vanilla and bit of leather.
Palate: Mellow vanilla, bit of brown sugar, caramel, vanilla.
Finish: Mild vanilla, cinnamon, and a malty cereal note.
Crown Royal Blended Canadian Whisky
Description: In the glass, Crown Royal has surprisingly healthy legs at 80-proof. It has the color of antique gold.
Nose: Aromas of toasted oak, cherry, rose petal, baking spices – allspice.
Tongue: Delicate mouthfeel, with flavors of almond, cherry, honey, toffee, baking spices – clove and vanilla.
Finish: Light and mellow, with vanilla, toffee, chocolate and orange peel.
[Related: Complete Crown Royal Review]
Although these products are both Canadian whisky products, their large gap in pricing means they are less likely to find themselves in a head-to-head matchup. For this reason, most whisky lovers will agree that Crown Royal will likely come out on top in a blind tasting.
However, the lower Value segment pricing of Canadian Club 1858 means that it is an excellent introductory brand to those new to the whisky category or curious about the differences between the two segments. It’s a favorite for cocktails like the whisky and ginger or whisky and coke. And in the Premium category, Crown Royal has garnered a loyal fan base that relishes the smooth whisky’s mellow flavor profile. It is often a bar shot call or enjoyed neat, but its subtle rye notes hold up well in a classic cocktail like the Manhattan.
By trying a glass of each, you can get a good snapshot of all the broader Canadian whisky category has to offer.
In addition to the standard 1858 expression, Canadian Club offers a host of premium products, including 9 and 12-year expressions — and a 42-year-old bottle that retails for about $300! Crown Royal offers a comprehensive portfolio of brand extensions, including Deluxe, Rye, Black, Blender’s Mash — which contains a bourbon mash bill of at least 51 percent corn — XR, XO, Reserve and Wine Barrel Finish. Between the two brands, you’ll have your hands full trying to taste through the series.