For those looking for a refined and sophisticated blend of Canadian whisky — one with an elevated retail price — Crown Royal XR is an enticing dram to seek out.
Subsequent releases included aged whiskies from the silent Waterloo and LaSalle distilleries, and this particular whiskey series differentiates the two by color bands on the bottle — red and blue. This post will look into how these two products differ and glean important insights into the market trends that led to their release.
These two products reflect the history of two now silent distilleries in Canada: the LaSalle Distillery and the Waterloo Distillery.
In previous articles, we have gone into great detail on the history of Crown Royal, the booze mogul Samuel Bronfman and his Seagram’s spirits empire that made him one of the wealthiest Canadians alive after the end of American Prohibition.
Check out our previous Crown Royal posts that help explain the brand’s history and production characteristics in great detail (also listed in the right-hand sidebar if you are reading this on desktop).
- Crown Royal Canadian Whisky Review
- Crown Royal vs Maker’s Mark
- Crown Royal vs Jack Daniel’s
- Canadian Club vs Crown Royal
- Canadian Mist vs Crown Royal
- Crown Royal vs Jameson
Here we’ll look at two of the distilleries that played a role in that empire — and how they led to some of the rarest and most sought-after bottles of Canadian whiskies on the planet.
The LaSalle Distillery was operated from 1924 to 1993. It was built by Samuel Bronfman and his brother, Harry, who purchased the decommissioned Greenbrier distillery in Kentucky, dismantled it and moved it to the Quebec town of LaSalle.
The campus included an impressive stone gothic-style building, a replica of a Scottish castle. It was the Seagram’s company headquarters following the merger of the LaSalle company and Seagram’s & Sons in 1929 until a new building was built in 1959.
In 1927, the Bronfman brothers purchased Seagram’s and its Waterloo Distillery in Ontario. Both facilities would play a critical role in what would become a global Seagram’s empire.
The purchases were shrewd investments for Bronfman. Prohibition in the United States began in 1924 and would ban the production, transportation, consumption or sale of alcohol until it was repealed in 1933. While prohibition in Canada was sporadic and only lasted a couple years — 1918 to 1920. Many in the industry were trying to get out of the alcohol business. Because the U.S. was Canada’s largest export market, the loss of export sales seemed to sound a death bell for the industry.
But Bronfman created an alcohol empire by investing in distilleries and reaping the benefits from thirsty American willing to cross the border to smuggle his wares south. Later, a boom in demand benefited his company as U.S. Congress repealed Prohibition and thirsty Americans reached for matured whiskies from their northern neighbor.
Samuel Bronfman created the first blend for Canadian Royal at the Waterloo Distillery in 1939 to celebrate a trip by King George VI and the British Royal family to Canada. When sales of the popular brand outpaced output at the two distilleries, Seagram’s built the Gimli Distillery in Manitoba in 1968, which continues to produce whisky for the brand today.
Blended Canadian whisky takes part of its approach to fermentation from Scotland, which has a shared history in the British Empire. Both blended Canadian and blended Scotch products are combinations of different types of whiskeys made from different types of grains.
By regulation, nearly exact products could be made in both countries and labeled as a blended whisky. However, by tradition, there is one significant difference between the two – the use of rye grain in the mash bill — or list of grain ingredients — used during fermentation.
Scotland’s long history using malted barley means most large-scale international brands of blended Scotch contain some component of malt whiskey — made with 100 percent malted barley. In addition, malt whisky is combined with more neutral grain whisky made primarily from corn or wheat.
But in Canada, the prominent ‘flavouring’ grain is not malted barley but rather spicy rye grain. This reflects Canada’s unique climate in the cold northern portions of North America and a shared North American distilling heritage with the United States, where rye grain also plays an integral role in the production of American rye whiskey and as a flavoring grain in bourbon mash bills.
In Canada, most blends combine grain whisky made from corn or wheat and ‘flavouring’ whisky made primarily with rye grain. For higher-end products — like Crown Royal — multiple grain bills and fermentation approaches might be used to differentiate between a myriad of component whiskies, which will be used to produce the final blend.
Although no regulation prohibits them from doing so, few established, large-volume Canadian brands utilize copper pot stills and 100 percent malted barley mash bills to produce component whiskies — a significant differentiator between Scotch whisky. Crown Royal is no exception.
Distillation & Production
Today, nearly all of the whisky found in a bottle of Crown Royal’s standard expression will have been distilled and matured at the Gimli facility in Manitoba — perhaps the largest distilling campus in North America. But the Waterloo and LaSalle facilities remain in operation as maturation facilities — showing the massive scale of the Diageo-owned brand.
In the warehouses at LaSalle, Master Blender Andrew MacKay looked over dwindling stocks of spirit distilled in the old distillery. So, to make the best use of these fine-aged barrels, he spearheaded the production of the Crown Royal XR — Extra Rare — launch in 2006. By meticulously blending over 50 component whiskies, he created a balanced and well-matured flavor profile that elevated Crown Royal’s premium product to the next level. This came to be known as Crown Royal Blue because of the banding around the neck and the blue velvet bag — which replaced the purple bag we’ve all come to know and love.
When Waterloo stocks dwindled to nothing, MacKay began utilizing old stocks from the LaSalle Distillery, which stopped producing spirits in 1990. This became known as Crown Royal Red, and the brand changed the banding and bag colors to reflect the shift in aged stock.
Today, both XR offerings are super-premium and hard to come by. The LaSalle Blue version – which can no longer be purchased easily at retail – has fetched prices into the thousands of U.S. dollars on the secondary market.
While we could find some limited information about the now silent distilleries of LaSalle and Waterloo, we could not find reliable information about the types of stills running at those plants. But while we can’t rule out a copper pot or types of hybrid stills, the timeframe of when the distilleries would have been built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries means column distillation was likely used there.
The story of these two brands is — in large part — the story of the unique interactions inside each barrel during the maturation phase of production.
The LaSalle distillery stopped producing spirits in 1993. And the Waterloo Distillery ran its last production run in 1990.
Each distillery — and every still — offers unique flavor attributes to the spirits produced using it. But off the still, the clear new make spirit is merely a presage of its final form — the brown-amber colored liquid we know as whisky.
After collecting whisky off the still, it is racked into wooden barrels and casks. Most whiskey is matured in used bourbon barrels made of American oak, but other types of casks are utilized to give nuanced flavors. Used sherry butts and other types of wine casks are used to a lesser extent.
Each barrel is unique — with barrels filled on the same day with the same spirit that sit a few years right next to each other, often disgorged to reveal wildly different flavors. But whiskies matured in different locations, also pick up different flavor attributes.
Maturation is the interaction of the spirit inside the barrel with the wood in the staves and the air around it through a process known as oxidation. Conditions like temperature, humidity and barometric pressure are vital inputs as the whisky spends time in the cask.
As a result, the Waterloo and LaSalle distillery sites will have contributed unique flavor notes and add complexity to the batches of XR Red and Blue label offerings.
The XR stands for ‘Extra Rare.’ An homage to cognac, which uses XO to stand for ‘Extra Old’ as a legal designation of age, the Extra Rare is not legally regulated in Canada the same way cognac is regulated in France.
But the description is accurate. While neither product has an age statement, the fact they were produced on silent stills means they were distilled in the 90s at the latest.
Ownership, Price Point & Value
Crown Royal is produced by Diageo, the London-based drinks producer that is the largest producer of distilled spirits in the world.
The Crown Royal XR — Red Waterloo Edition is no longer produced and is relegated to the secondary market. So, any bottles found for purchase will likely cost $1,000 US dollars or more.
Crown Royal XR — Blue LaSalle Edition is an ultra-premium product. It is a popular product in the retail travel market, where bottles can be found for about $500 US dollars.
Tasting Notes and Critical Acclaim
When writing this article, we could not find XR Red or Blue bottles available for purchase in our market. So, for this article, we reviewed Crown Royal XO Blended Canadian Whisky — an extra-premium product also produced for the brand and available for about $130. Notable production differences include XO maturation utilizing Cognac casks and the lack of LaSalle and Waterloo component whiskies.
For a review of Crown Royal XR, check out the tasting notes from the Whisky Cast podcast.
Crown Royal XR – La Salle Edition was awarded the Chairman’s Trophy at the 2019 Ultimate Spirits Challenge.
Crown Royal XO Blended Canadian Whisky
Description: In the glass, the color of Crown Royal XO is reminiscent of amontillado sherry, with light legs at 80 proof and a light yellow hue.
Nose: Light and mellow, with notes of figs and raisins. A sweet corn note and toffee.
Palate: Light and mellow, with caramel, almonds and vanilla.
Finish: Mild and light, with vanilla, cinnamon, baking spice.
Should you encounter either of these bottles — Crown Royal XR Red or Blue — in the wild in their native environments, give them a try. Then let us know what you think as we continue to seek out these elusive offerings for ourselves!