It is very rare to have a relatively entry-level rye whisky fly off the shelves – but that is what you get for being named “world whisky of the year” by Jim Murray. 🙂
A new product from Crown Royal, Northern Harvest Rye is a blended Canadian whisky composed of 90% rye. Priced attractively at ~$30 CAD, it is now virtually impossible to find it here in Ontario. Indeed, despite having secured the largest allocation of this product in Canada, the LCBO has just taken the extraordinary step of removing the direct inventory link for this item from its website.
Having personally tracked inventory patterns for several weeks now, it appears the LCBO is consolidating shipments. That is, only a single store in any given geographical region gets a delivery – but with a sizable allotment of bottles when it comes. These focused deliveries have been revolving through the local stores in my area, with no advance warning (according to those outlets). Yet despite this, any store that receives a shipment sells out within hours – due to word quickly spreading by social media (which is how I finally managed to find a bottle).
So, does the whisky live up its hype? Given the interest, I thought I’d do a full review with detailed tastings notes before exploring the whisky database results in more detail. On that front, I will also present a statistical analysis and discussion of Mr Murray’s scoring patterns later in this review. 😉
Nose: This is a fragrant whisky – I could smell it while pouring the glass, at counter height. The overwhelming aroma is one of sweet apple – red apples, green apples, pear apples, etc. There is a creamy sweetness overall, with some notes of caramel and vanilla. You also get some of the classic rye “baking spices”, especially nutmeg, but these aren’t overly strong. Taken together, this is a veritable baked apple pie in a glass! There are additional fruit notes present (e.g., berries, cherries, etc.), but I find they take a back seat. If you search for it, you might be able to detect a slight acetone smell – but its well buried below the fruit. Initial impression is quite favourable, but the candied sweetness may be off-putting for some (i.e. it smells like it is part apple liqueur).
Palate: Bold and fruit-forward, with all the initial hallmarks of a good Canadian rye whisky. I find the apple (while still present) is mercifully subdued now, and the other fruits quickly come to the surface (especially red fruits and berries). Butterscotch/caramel and vanilla are also more prominent, and the rest of the classic rye baking spices show up – including cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger and all-spice. Maybe even cardamon – there’s something that reminds me of chai masala here (i.e., black tea with Indian spices and milk). There is also definite oak now, which I found was missing on the nose. The only problem for me is the bitterness which comes in at the end (think strong grapefruit) – it’s quite prominent, and ruins what would otherwise be a consistently top-tasting Canadian rye blend.
Finish: Unfortunately, the bitterness that develops at the end of the palate is slow to clear – and when it does, so has everything else! I suppose this encourages you to take another sip, but then you just start the whole cycle over again. Putting this lingering bitterness aside, there is not really that much else going here – the same flavours as the palate, only more subdued and fading. I find the finish to be rather weak, and out of character with the impressively strong nose and palate.
So, how does this whisky compare to other inexpensive (and predominantly rye) Canadian whiskies in my database?
Alberta Premium: 8.35 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews
Alberta Premium Dark Horse: 8.65 ± 0.38 on 13 reviews
Canadian Club 100% Rye: 8.67 ± 0.37 on 7 reviews
Forty Creek Copper Pot Reserve: 8.71 ± 0.41 on 12 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Lot 40: 8.89 ± 0.43 on 14 reviews
Wiser’s Legacy: 9.07 ± 0.26 on 12 reviews
This relative reviewer ranking shows pretty clearly where Northern Harvest Rye fits in – which is also pretty in keeping with relative prices (at least at the LCBO). Personally, I would rank Alberta Premium Dark Horse and Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye both a bit higher in that list, but the overall ranking seems reasonable.
Let’s see how it does relative to the other well-known Crown Royals:
Crown Royal: 7.72 ± 0.52 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Black: 8.28 ± 0.56 on 12 reviews
Crown Royal Special Reserve: 8.79 ± 0.62 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.91 ± 0.62 on 5 reviews
Interestingly, Northern Harvest Rye effectively ties with Special Reserve, and rests below Monarch 75th Anniversary (although the number of reviews there is limited). I know there’s a bottle of Monarch waiting for me under the tree this year, so stay tuned for a follow-up review. 😉
Overall, I find this to be a decent Canadian rye whisky, with a lot going for it. I suppose it could be a good choice as a “sipping whisky” – although the overt sweetness on the nose and the bitterness on the finish detract for me personally.
If you want to read more opinions of this whisky, the three highest-scoring reviews in my database come from Jim Murray, Chip the Rum Howler, and Jason of Whisky Won. Personally, my relative ranking would fall closer in line with André, Patrick and Martin of Quebec Whisky. See also Josh of the Whiskey Jug for a slightly lower score and review.
Understanding Jim Murray’s Score
Jim Murray’s annual “whisky of the year” tends to garner a lot attention and controversy – and this year’s top pick has elicited more than the usual hand-wringing online and in the media. Much of the online commentary has been quite negative, with many accusing Mr. Murray of pulling an attention-seeking publicity stunt (see for example the Whisky Sponge).
While all would likely agree that Northern Harvest Rye is an above-average Canadian rye whisky blend for the price, it is a bit hard to understand how anyone could consider this one of the highest ranking whiskies ever – especially such an experienced reviewer like Mr Murray. His 97.5 score and “world whisky of the year” designation thus seem rather over the top!
A thoughtful concern, as expressed on Whisky Won, is that superlative scores by Mr Murray for entry-level Canadian ryes – like Alberta Premium and Northern Harvest – may actually be harmful for the reputation of Canadian whisky world-wide. Many will rush out, keen to try whiskies that routinely exceed 95 points on Mr Murray’s scale – only to walk walk away disappointed by the relative quality in the end.
But are these selections really as surprising as they seem? What is lacking in many of these discussions is an understanding of how Mr Murray (or any reviewer) actually scores their whiskies.
One the advantages of running a meta-critic analysis site is that I’ve spent a lot of time exploring how individual reviewers score whiskies. As explained here, scoring is simply a way of providing a relative rank to all the samples you have tried. It turns out most reviewers are actually quite consistent to each other in terms of their relative ranking. This is evidenced by the very good typical correlation of each reviewer to the properly normalized meta-critic scores (r=~0.75 across all reviewers). It is also the reason why you are better off just going by the meta-critic score – and not any one reviewer – when assessing overall quality. It’s good to keep in mind the biases and limitations inherent in quality ranking.
Mr Murray is actually something of an extreme case in my database. He has one of the lowest overall correlations to the combined meta-critic score (r<0.50). Indeed, he correlates quite poorly to all other reviewers in my database (paired correlations range from r~0.10 to r=~0.45 to each reviewer, which are lower than typical). But that doesn’t mean he is entirely inconsistent in his scoring – there can be patterns in how he differs from the other reviewers.
For this simple analysis, I’ve looked at all the whiskies where Mr Murray’s normalized score deviates from the meta-critic score by a considerable margin. Using a cut-off of 1.5 standard deviation units, there are ~75 whiskies (out of >400 tracked) where Mr Murray’s score is that divergent from the combined meta-critic score. In particular, there are ~25 whiskies where he scores well above the norm, ~50 well below.
The larger number of cases where Mr. Murray scores below the norm are almost exclusively all single malt whiskies. These include many popular mid-range and high-end single malts (i.e., the mean and median costs are of these whiskies are higher than typical for my overall database).
In contrast, the smaller number of cases where Mr Murray scores above the norm are predominantly blends – including many Canadian rye whiskies. As you can imagine, the mean/median cost of these whiskies are below typical for the database.
To illustrate, let’s take a look at the top scoring blends in this divergent high-ranking group. To limit the list, I am including only those that make it into the 65th percentile of Mr Murray’s scores (i.e., ones that score 92 and higher). I am also putting them in rank order, from lowest to highest Murray score.
Pendleton Let’er Buck (Canada) – $$ – Meta-critic 8.12 ± 0.45 on 12 reviews
Canadian Club (Canada): – $ – Meta-critic: 7.25 ± 0.97 on 11 reviews
Hiram Walker Special Old Rye (Canada) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.19 ± 0.42 on 8 reviews
Black Grouse (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.04 ± 0.56 on 15 reviews
Green Spot (Ireland) – $$$ – Meta-critic: 8.65 ± 0.34 on 9 reviews
Jameson’s Whiskey (Ireland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 7.73 ± 0.62 on 13 reviews
Alberta Premium (Canada) – $ – Meta-critic: 8.35 ± 0.53 on 9 reviews
Chivas Regal 25yo (Scotland) – $$$$$+ – Meta-critic: 8.73 ± 0.24 on 7 reviews
Ballantine’s (Scotland) – $ – Meta-critic: 7.66 ± 0.77 on 8 reviews
Johnnie Walker Black Label (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.37 ± 0.41 on 15 reviews
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye (Scotland) – $$ – Meta-critic: 8.82 ± 0.37 on 10 reviews
Notice something interesting about relative cost? With a couple of exceptions, these are mainly entry-level budget blends. There is thus a very consistent pattern in how Mr Murray deviates from the rest of the review community: whew he differs, he preferentially favours inexpensive blends, and is less impressed with more expensive single malts.
It is clear (from the Meta-critic scores above) that Northern Harvest is a better quality whisky than the other Canadian blends on that list. So Mr Murray may indeed still be providing a personal relative ranking among blends with his scores – it is just that the absolute value of his scores are inconsistent across blends and single malts.
For experienced whisky drinkers, it is hard to reconcile this scoring pattern with a consistent overall ranking across classes. One possible interpretation of the data is that Mr Murray is explicitly factoring price into his scores. There are several reviewers who do this when providing categorical labels (i.e, “must have”, “recommended”, “avoid”, etc). But Mr Murray’s self-reported method for assembling his scores leaves no room for this.
Further, there seems to a preference for budget blends over budget malts in his scoring, so it is not strictly limited to just price. Thus, an alternative interpretation – and one that seems to fit the data the best – is that Mr Murray is applying a different relative scale for his scoring of budget blends than he does to other whiskies (single malts in particular).
To sum up, the apparent inconsistency is not that Mr Murray gives Harvest Rye such an incredibly high score. Rather, it is that he gives so many entry-level blends such high scores to start with. He is thus fairly unique in the whisky reviewing universe, giving a good number of mass-produced budget blends equivalent (or higher) scores than selective smaller batch whiskies – even when made by the same producers.