What’s a nice piece of Canadiana doing on every bar in Texas?
I’m referring to Crown Royal, which occupies a special place of honour in the Lone Star State—in bars, in homes and, especially, in liquor stores, where stacks of boxes of it are often more prominently displayed than bourbon.
What makes that surprising, I think, is that we think of that whisky, with its distinctive, regal bottle and signature purple velvet bag as a unique part of the Canadian experience. Some of us can even recall a time, before single malts, when specifying “Crown” in your mixed drink was a sign of discernment, indicating that you’d tried a few whiskies and had decided trading-up to the slightly more expensive Crown was worth the extra little bit of money.
In the spirit of 150, I decided I needed to get to the bottom of this. Is it ours? Or America’s? Or a dual citizen?
To find out, I went to Gimli, Manitoba where Crown Royal is now exclusively made. That wasn’t always the case, Seagram’s used to make it in Waterloo, but, in the mid-1960s, looked westward to find a location that would allow the company to build a state-of-the-art, modern distillery. The location has a few other key attributes: It’s surrounded by farmland ideal for growing grain; cool Lake Winnipeg is perfect for use as a coolant in the distillation and it’s strangely central for a town that seems to be in the middle of proverbial nowhere. It’s pretty close to the middle of our country and conveniently located near the trans-Canada train and truck shipping routes. All roads lead to Winnipeg.
Especially the ones that head south, down to Fargo, Wichita, and Dallas, all of which are essentially the exact same longitude as Winnipeg. They represent a small part of the United States market, which is where some 70 per cent of Canadian whisky is sold. America has been our most important customer for about 150 years, ever since their Civil War caused shortages and opened up a market for Canadian-style “rye.” Most Canadians think they developed a taste for “rye” during Prohibition, but, in fact, we were there a half-century before that.
But why Texas, specifically? Well, it turns out it’s all about oil. Texas oil workers sometimes do work in Canada and, the story goes, some of them picked up a taste for Crown and brought it back home, where it caught on. It may also have been helped by Canadians, who sometimes worked the Texas oilfields and wanted a taste of home. Crown started selling to the United States in 1964 and never looked back.
Even though they drink more of it than we do, it’s still, fundamentally ours. After all, the blend was initially created by Canadian entrepreneur Sam Bronfman to celebrate the 1939 royal visit, when King George VI came to Canada, became the first British monarch to visit the country. It was a historic visit for another reason, too: With the Second World War about to blow up, it was an attempt to boost trans-Atlantic alliances in the face of Nazi aggression. Bronfman, who was commissioned by the Canadian government to make a blend to commemorate the occasion, apparently understood the weight of the task and even consulted a rabbi for spiritual guidance as he played with hundreds of different blends until he found the perfect one.
It was Bronfman’s gift to Canada, England, and the war effort nearly 80 years ago. And, with new, amazing expressions, such as the Limited Edition—along with several secret wheat whisky and single malt projects in the works—it’s shaping up to be the kind of gift that keeps on giving.
And as to Texas, well, we’re willing to share custody. After all, we’re all in it together.
Words by Christine Sismondo