One of the pet peeves of Crown Royal whisky fans in Canada is that one of their best bottlings – Hand Selected Barrel – is only available in the U.S. This is a cask-strength, single barrel version of one of the core “flavouring” whiskies used in most Crown Royal blends – a high-rye mashbill, coffey still-distilled, virgin oak-aged whisky.
But now, Ontarians can get a taste of what this bourbon-style whisky is like – through Blender’s Select, a batched version sold exclusively at the LCBO. I’m surprised they had enough available to produce this 5000-case release, as this high-demand whisky is only made once a year, over a 5 week period, at their plant in Gimli, Manitoba.
To create this blended whisky, Crown Royal has added some 9 year old whisky to the standard 7 year old used in Hand Selected Barrel, to help compensate for the lower proof in this batched version (45% ABV). It sells for $55 CAD exclusively at the LCBO (although I’ve seen it on sale a couple of times now).
Let’s see how it compares to other Crown Royals in Meta-Critic Whisky Database:
Crown Royal: 7.57 ± 0.49 on 19 reviews ($)
Crown Royal Black: 8.20 ± 0.50 on 16 reviews ($$) Crown Royal Blender’s Select: 8.61 ± 0.14 on 4 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Bourbon Mash (Blender’s Mash): 8.32 ± 0.50 on 4 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.77 ± 0.29 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Limited Edition: 8.29 ± 0.19 on 11 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.62 ± 0.47 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Cornerstone Blend: 8.37 ± 0.69 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished: 8.70 ± 0.53 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.56 ± 0.34 on 18 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.46 ± 0.65 on 15 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal XO: 8.56 ± 0.54 on 8 reviews ($$$)
While there are not too many reviews, that’s certainly a good score for a Crown Royal.
And now, what I find in the glass:
Nose: Sweet and fruity nose, very creamy too. Candy apple. Orange citrus. Butterscotch and caramel. Buttered popcorn. Something hard to describe, but reminiscent of powdered candy canes. Oil of cloves. Some acetone, but not bad – better than the one Hand Selected Barrel I tried. Very nice nose in the end, if you like your rye sweet.
Palate: Sweet and fruity again, dark fruits especially. Caramel and vanilla. Reminds me a bit of Canadian Club 100% Rye – but with even more fruitiness. Wood spice, with a touch of pepper. Seems a bit watery for ABV. Some sting on the swallow – plus some bitterness (common to Crown Royal).
Finish: Medium. I don’t find it has as much aspartame (artificial sweetener) as most Crown Royals, this one again seems more like crushed candy sugar. It’s also not as bitter on the way out as most Crown Royals.
My own real complaint here is that it lacks mouthfeel, and seems kind of watery for the ABV. I would have to rate this one as comparable in quality to Northern Harvest Rye, on par with Crown Royal Reserve and the one Hand Selected Barrel I’ve had (which seems to have been somewhat sub-par for the class, based on the other reviews I’ve seen). Nothing really compelling here over the rest of the line, but a solid expression for Crown Royal.
This whisky is the second member in Crown Royal’s “Noble Collection” – a new line of higher-end products from the Gimli, Manitoba distillery. This expression is finished for six months in freshly emptied, medium-toast Cabernet Sauvignon casks from the Paso Robles region of California.
Fresh wine cask finishes can impart some interesting notes – although not always universally pleasant ones. Unlike fortified wines, I find you can get some sourness along with fresh fruit notes in these whiskies. And while I am personally a fan of Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton, I’m not so keen on the Arran Malt Amarone Finish.
Bottled at 40.5% ABV (oddly), it currently retails for $70 CAD at the LCBO. I picked it up for $60 during the Canada Day online sale.
Here are how the various Crown Royals compare in my Meta-Critic database:
Crown Royal: 7.59 ± 0.46 on 19 reviews ($)
Crown Royal Black: 8.21 ± 0.49 on 16 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.86 ± 0.28 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Limited Edition: 8.30 ± 0.19 on 11 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.62 ± 0.48 on 12 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Noble Collection Cornerstone Blend: 8.35 ± 0.80 on 4 reviews ($$$) Crown Royal Noble Collection Wine Barrel Finished: 8.72 ± 0.55 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.55 ± 0.35 on 18 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.47 ± 0.67 on 14 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal XO: 8.56 ± 0.57 on 7 reviews ($$$)
While only a few reviews are in so far, this is a very good score for a Crown Royal – the second-highest in my database, to date.
And now for a few other non-fortified wine barrel-finished whiskies:
Arran Malt Amarone Cask Finish 8.76 ± 0.33 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Arran Malt Pomerol Bordeaux Cask Finish 8.35 ± 0.62 on 8 reviews ($$$$)
Arran Malt Sassicaia Wine Cask Finish 8.76 ± 0.17 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Arran Malt Tokaji Aszu Wine Finish 8.78 ± 0.34 on 4 reviews ($$$$)
Bruichladdich 21yo Cuvée 640 Eroica 8.74 ± 0.40 on 9 reviews ($$$$$)
Bruichladdich 21yo Cuvée 382 La Berenice 8.57 ± 0.56 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Forty Creek Evolution: 8.70 ± 0.68 on 8 reviews ($$$)
Green Spot Château Léoville Barton 8.81 ± 0.34 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Longrow 7yo Gaja Barolo Finish 8.59 ± 0.51 on 7 reviews ($$$$)
Longrow 10yo Tokaji Finish 7.47 ± 1.10 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Longrow Red 11yo Australian Shiraz 8.86 ± 0.34 on 6 reviews ($$$$$)
Longrow Red 11yo Cabernet Sauvignon 8.43 ± 1.15 on 11 reviews ($$$$$)
Longrow Red 12yo Pinot Noir Finish 8.84 0.34 on 7 reviews ($$$$$)
Longrow Red 14yo Burgundy Wood 8.54 ± 0.70 on 5 reviews ($$$$$)
Teeling Single Grain (Wine Cask Finish) 8.53 ± 0.32 on 10 reviews ($$$)
What strikes me in the above list is how different wine cask finishings have both enhanced and reduced the typical scores for the given distilleries – as well as having greatly increased the variability in reviewer scores in many cases. It seems that wine cask finishing can be a bit hit or miss.
Here is what I find in the glass for this Crown Royal:
Nose: Very sweet and fruity, but with a definite underlying sourness. Cola and Juicy Fruit gum note (i.e., high-fructose corn syrup sweet). Prunes, raisins, sour cherry, with red and black currants. Also gooseberries (aka ground cherries). Citrus, lemon in particular (reminds me of Pledge furniture wax, but in a good way). Earthy, with anise and some tobacco. A bit grassy. Spicy, with cloves and a bit of pepper. Some similarity to Green Spot Chateau Leoville Barton, but the rye whisky is definitely present here – it is just being overshadowed by the wine cask. There is a fairly unique off-note that reminds me of a musty kitchen sponge – plus of course acetone (with all that fruity sweetness). Definitely complex and unique.
Palate: Caramel and vanilla dominate on the initial palate – surprisingly so, since I didn’t detect them on the nose. These are followed by those dark fruits and cola syrup notes. Buttered popcorn. Definitely oaky (fresh, young oak). A lighter mint note joins the earthiness from the nose. The rest of the baking spices – nutmeg, cinnamon and all spice – join the cloves. The initial mouthfeel is rather watery (as to be expected for 40.5% ABV), but it leaves a sticky residue on the lips and gums. Subsequent sips have a decidedly alkaline feel (i.e., slippery, almost oily), but sticky after you swallow. Quite unique in my experience. Astringent on the way out, with some classic Crown Royal bitterness (sadly).
Finish: Long. Lingering cola and dark fruits initially, turning more into wine gums over time. Mouth-puckering astringency is there, but not much bitterness fortunately. Oddly enough, it ends with a more typical rye spice finish once all the fruits/wine gums finally die down.
Water lightens the mouthfeel and doesn’t bring anything new – I recommend you drink it neat.
This is a unique Crown Royal – and a quality one at that. I can’t think of anything quite like it on the Canadian whisky scene (correction: Forty Creek Evolution is a comparable style). While I wasn’t sure on the first initial sniffs, it really grew on me as I started to sample it. I haven’t tried the cognac-finished Crown Royals (e.g. XO), but this is kind of how I imagine it could taste, given my experience with Bruichladdich Cuvee 640 Eroica. While perhaps a bit steep at list MSRP, this Wine Barrel Finished was certainly a good buy on sale – especially if you like your whisky sweet and complex.
Very popular with Jason of In Search of Elegance. and Davin of Whisky Advocate. I am not quite as positive, but would still give it an above average score for a Canadian whisky, and one my highest scores for a Crown Royal. Debbie of Whiskey Reviewer gave it a below average score (although with a positive review, and also considering it one of the best CRs). Devoz of Reddit was less positive of this expression.
Crown Royal is one of the most popular budget whiskies in Canada. I have recently posted reviews of a couple of the more highly-ranked expressions (Monarch and Northern Harvest Rye). Thanks to a swap with the user Devoz on Reddit, I have been able to sample a bottle of Hand Selected Barrel – a cask-specific release, currently only available in the United States.
That may sound odd, but Crown Royal is also very popular in parts of the U.S. – particularly Texas. As a result, Hand Selected Barrel and Northern Harvest Rye were originally launched as limited releases there in late 2014. They only gradually expanded across the U.S., with NHR showing up in Canada late last Fall. We are still waiting to see if Hand Selected Barrel will make its way up here. 😉
The initial Texas-only release of these whiskies makes sense, when you consider their composition. Northern Harvest Rye is close to being a straight rye (actually 90% rye in this case), and rye is enjoying a surging popularity in the U.S. Hand Selected Barrel is made with a very boubon-like high-rye mashbill of 64% corn, 31.5% rye, and 4.5% malted barley – and aged exclusively in new oak barrels (i.e., just like bourbon). It is bottled at a common “cask strength” of 51.5%, which will definitely appeal to bourbon enthusiasts.
Both Northern Harvest Rye and Hand Selected Barrel are examples of what are known in Canada as “flavouring whiskies.” Hand Selected Barrel in particular is drawn exclusively from whisky produced on Crown Royal’s massive “Coffee Rye” still – distilled to low ABV, and aged in virgin oak barrels (for seven years in this case). In Canada, this sort of low ABV high-rye whisky is often used to “flavour” blended whiskies that are composed predominantly of high ABV corn whisky.
In essence, Crown Royal really is hand-selecting individual barrels of this potent flavouring whisky for direct bottling. I understand that it is only available at U.S. stores that agree to purchase a whole barrel (i.e., each bottle is thus unique to that particular store and cask). As a result, you can expect a considerable amount of variability from one store to the next – but all are likely to give a fairly intense flavour profile. My sample came from a bottle purchased at a retail Texas store.
Here are how some of the major Crown Royal expressions rank in my database, in order of average Meta-Critic score (highest first):
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.89 ± 0.52 on 7 reviews ($$$) Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.81 ± 0.27 on 7 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal XO: 8.78 ± 0.35 on 5 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.72 ± 0.42 on 11 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.65 ± 0.75 on 11 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.24 ± 0.53 on 15 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal: 7.60 ± 0.52 on 13 reviews ($)
And now, my detailed tasting notes on this sample of Hand Selected Barrel:
Nose: Very reminiscent of Northern Harvest Rye. I get a very sweet candied nose, with overwhelming apple and vanilla initially – and the same solvent undercurrent as the NHR (more, if anything). On repeated nosing, novel aromas open up like banana and strawberry, leading to a bubble-gum sensation. It also singes my nose hairs if I inhale too deeply or too long – which is a sign of that higher ABV. Pretty comparable overall to NHR, but with a bit more character and “oomph.”
Palate: Big, bold bourbon-es character, with tons of vanilla and butterscotch mixed with various fruits – mainly apple (again), strawberry and cherries. Definite citrus, but more candied orange than the typical Crown Royal grapefruit. The woody character comes through – certainly oak, but also a sweet, resinous conifer sap (Spruce?) that quickly turns to eucalyptus in my mouth. Has a thick and syrupy mouth feel overall, which is another sign of the high ABV – but still with a slightly tannic dryness that I like. I don’t get the classic Crown Royal bitterness here, which is a bonus in my view (although some may find this too sweet). The rye spices come up only toward the end, with a mild dry dusty bread taste. Certainly less overt rye than the NHR – more like a full-flavoured high-rye bourbon (which is basically what this is).
Finish: Oddly not very flavourful or long-lasting. This is where it falls a little flat for me – quite literally in fact, as it reminds me of slightly flat Tab (i.e., saccharin-sweetened diet cola). Some of the classic Crown Royal bitterness seems to be trying to poke through now, but is being suppressed by this artificial sweetness. Definitely much better than regular Crown Royal, but some may prefer the sharper bitterness of the NHR. Certainly doesn’t match the consistently smooth finish of the Monarch 75th Anniversary blend. By the end of the tasting, I could detect the dry heat of alcohol fumes rising from the back of my throat (i.e., another sign of the higher ABV ).
Overall, I would rate this sample of the Hand Selected Barrel as very close to the Northern Harvest Rye in overall quality. There are certainly differences though – NHR is more of a traditional Canadian Rye, without the thick and rich woodiness of the bourbon-like Hand Selected Barrel. This HSB has a more robust palate, but the NHR has a sharper and cleaner nose and finish. And I still consider my batch of Monarch to be a whole other league – an example of how Crown Royal can make a high quality and elegant blended whisky.
At the end of the day, if you can’t get your hands on a Hand Selected Barrel, the Northern Harvest Rye is probably the closest substitute in the Crown Royal family.
Keeping in mind the standard caveat that each bottle is going to be different, you can find some very positive reviews of this whisky by Davin de Kergommeaux at Canadian Whisky, Jason at Whisky Won, Josh of the The Whiskey Jug, and Chip the Rum Howler.
Crown Royal is a well established Canadian blended whisky maker, with a fairly wide range of products available. I have been exploring some of the higher-end offerings lately, and thoughtfully received a bottle of Crown Royal Monarch (75th Anniversary Blend) this year for Christmas.
Apparently, Crown Royal had some trouble with using the “Monarch” label, so they had to switch to calling this the “75th Anniversary” blend. It is designed to simulate the original style of Crown Royal produced in honour of the Royal Family visit in 1939. As such, it apparently contains a high proportion of coffey-still rye, including some old stock made at the original Waterloo, Ontario plant.
Here are how some of the major Crown Royal expressions rank in my database, in order of average meta-critic score (highest first):
Crown Royal Monarch 75th Anniversary: 8.94 ± 0.55 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Hand Selected Barrel: 8.85 ± 0.25 on 6 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye: 8.82 ± 0.36 on 10 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal Reserve: 8.80 ± 0.61 on 10 reviews ($$$)
Crown Royal Black: 8.27 ± 0.53 on 13 reviews ($$)
Crown Royal: 7.75 ± 0.51 on 10 reviews ($)
There are certainly more expressions available out there, but these get among the greatest attention. See my Whisky Database for more examples.
This bottle was picked up at the LCBO for $60 CAD, although availability is currently limited.
Here are my detailed tasting notes on Monarch 75th Anniversary (batch 6):
Nose: Rye spices are present (cinnamon and cloves in particular), along with the classic oaky aromas. The main “sweet and fruity” aroma that I get is pleasant, but somewhat candied. Frankly, it reminds me of Juicy Fruit gum (although slightly flat Coke also comes to mind). I get a bit of green apple (which is common to Crown Royal) – but nothing like the overwhelming apple I detected on the Northern Harvest Rye. Maybe a bit of banana – but not in an offensive way (and I am personally sensitive to rotting banana aromas). A well done nose, with no false notes. It especially lacks that solvent smell which is common to cheaper Canadian blends.
Palate: A relatively sweet entry for a rye whisky – but not cloying in the way that most Crown Royals are (IMO). There is a good integration of the rye spices with classic grain whisky “smoothness” throughout the palate. I get a lot of the well-aged charred oak barrel vanillins (caramel, butterscotch, vanilla, etc). I also get the some of the concentrated darker fruits that I like in a whisky (i.e., figs, raisins, etc). Personally, I find no trace of the typical grapefruity bitterness that quickly creeps in on most Crown Royals. Well done!
Finish: Pleasantly long, creamy, and with no unexpected after-tastes. The same notes as the palate just gently mellow away over time.
Although the term is overused, this is a “smooth” and easily drinkable whisky. The Northern Harvest Rye is interesting, and a great way to experience a lot of rye “kick” within the confines of the classic Crown Royal characteristics (i.e., cloyingly sweet on the entry, very bitter on the exit). But the best thing I can say for Monarch is that it doesn’t taste like a typical Crown Royal. 😉
I think Monarch makes for a great sipper, and is likely to be enjoyed by both newcomers and experienced whisky drinkers alike. Basically, it reminds me of a lighter (and younger) version of Gibson’s 18yo. Alternatively, you could think of it as akin to a longer-aged Hibiki Harmony. Either way, an easy-drinking dram.
For more opinions on this whisky, I note that Davin de Kergommeaux at Whisky Advocate named this whisky Canadian Whisky of the Year for 2015. Beppi Crossariol of the Globe & Mail is also a big fan, giving this the highest whisky score I’ve seen from him to date. For a dissenting voice, check out André at Quebec Whisky. Jason at Whisky Won also has a more balanced overall score.
Update (January 19, 2016): Judging from the comments on my corresponding review of this whisky on Reddit, it seems like there may be significant batch variability (with most recent batches being less impressive). Also, note that the LCBO has removed this whisky from their online website, although some stores may still have inventory. Here is the last recorded inventory list for this whisky on Liquery.com.
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.