This past year American whiskey got a tremendous amount of attention and buzz, while its northern cousin, Canadian whisky, quietly chugged away selling a massive amount of spirit. Crown Royal moved a whopping 4.3 million cases in 2013 (according to Impact Databank) with double digit growth that outpaced even Johnnie Walker (source Shanken News). A major part of Crown Royal’s success last year was the release of Crown Royal Maple, a maple finished/flavored Canadian whisky that not only attracted brand loyalists to a higher priced offering, but also new customers to the brand (some of whom were most likely swapping in the flavored whisky for flavored vodka).
Rather than trying to duplicate Crown Royal Maple with another flavor like cinnamon, honey, peach, or caramel, Crown Royal has gone upscale with this year’s premium release. Crown Royal XO is a blended Canadian whisky that’s finished in ex-cognac barrels. Crown Royal XO is another in a long line of recent releases from Diageo designed to push their workhorse products into ever-increasing premium spaces. At $50 a bottle, Crown Royal XO is double the price of last year’s Crown Royal Maple, but still half the price of the line’s super-premium series Crown Royal XR.
Crown Royal XO Canadian Whisky (40% ABV / 80 proof, $49.99) – while there’s no word on where the cognac barrels used to finish this release come from (or how long the whisky spends in those barrels), our best guess is that they come from Hennessy, which Diageo has a distribution relationship with. Dark amber in color, Crown Royal XO has clearly picked up some additional color from its time in cognac barrels. The nose on the XO has many of the traditional Crown Royal aromas including caramel, vanilla (which is a little more shortbread cookie here), and oak, but the oak notes are much deeper and stronger. Along with these traditional aromas are some new ones including dried fruit, iris flower, and ginger, all fairly common cognac/french oak related aromas. The nose on Crown Royal XO is well integrated and inviting without being overly strong or assertive.
The entry for Crown Royal XO is fairly oak forward with more charred American oak presenting itself at the beginning over the French cognac finishing barrel. What is apparent from the start is that the cognac barrel has greatly impacted the mouthfeel for Crown Royal XO, which is more lush than traditional Crown Royal. As with the nose, the solid oak here at the entry is pronounced but not overly assertive. The oak is more balanced in the midpalate where it’s joined by caramel and the dried fruit from the nose. The spices also round out quite well in the midpalate and the oak is joined by clove, ginger, nutmeg, and black pepper. Underneath it all is a nice subtle pecan note. The finish for Crown Royal XO is of medium length with light vanilla and subtle spice. Things clean up pretty well at the end of the finish without much dryness.
Cognac barrels and French oak can bring a lot to the equation, depending on how old the barrel is, how many times it has been used, and how long a spirit spends finishing/aging in it. Crown Royal seems to be using these cognac barrels more to impact the mouthfeel of XO and bolster the solid but enjoyable oak character than pulling some of the other flavors that an ex-cognac barrel can add to the mix. The integration of flavors, balance, and character of Crown Royal XO are all well done and we appreciate that there are no sharp turns towards the end, with a finish that matches well with the rest of the flavor experience. Crown Royal XO is a solid step up for existing Crown Royal drinkers who want something special, and an easy, flavorful alternative for people who find some of the oakier American whiskeys just too strong. The only thing that’s tough about Crown Royal XO is the price tag; at $50, Crown Royal XO is double the price of Crown Royal Black and $10 over the previously released Crown Royal Reserve. It’s nice whisky, but it in the $30-$40 it’s a lot easier to recommend.