The Toronto launch of Crown Royal's latest brand extension last month was far from the stodgy affair usually reserved for whisky tastings. Amid the wood-plank decor of Cabin Five, a Canadiana-themed bar in clubland, guests created their own maple-syrup taffy sticks while tucking into maple-bacon poutine, maple tourtières and pancakes with syrup.
Heady cooking aromas of the sugar shack – even an ersatz urban one such as this – would cripple the nuances of most whiskies. But Crown Royal Maple is a different dram. Sweet and rich, it could make a fine 80-proof addition to the lumberjack's breakfast pantry, right next to the waffle-batter mix.
Crown Royal's first foray into the flavoured-whisky market, Crown Royal Maple taps one of the fastest-growing alcoholic-beverage segments. Perhaps you've noted the trend. Kentucky distillers opened the floodgates a few years ago with Wild Turkey American Honey and Jim Beam Red Stag, a black-cherry-flavoured bourbon. Then Jack Daniel's and a couple of others followed with honey-infused offshoots. One could almost hear Henny Youngman quip, "Bartender, bartender, there's a bee in my bourbon."
Canadian brands have been slow off the mark but are making up for lost time. Last year, Gibson's Finest celebrated the centenary of Canadian football's Grey Cup with a special edition nuanced with, yes, a hint of maple. And there have been an array of domestic "spiced" offerings mainly flavoured with vanilla, including Wiser's Spiced, Canadian Club Dock No. 57, Spicebox and Revel Stoke, the latter an old brand that was revived a couple of years ago.
Though still a small fraction of the overall whisky market, sales of flavoured offerings jumped by more than 20 per cent in volume in the United States during the 12 months ending last June, says Zoe Traynor, Wiser's senior brand manager in Toronto. In Canada, the flavoured segment tends to be lumped into the broader "innovation" category, which includes new small-batch bourbons and other whiskies. That category accounted for 70 per cent of whisky volume growth over the past three years, Traynor notes.
Frankly, I'd sooner take a small-batch bourbon any day, but, in fairness, I'm not in the target demographic here. Laced with sugar, natural and, in some cases, artificial flavourings, the new entrants mainly appeal to a younger crowd seeking added sweetness and a mellower kick for simple cocktails such as Coke-and-whisky or bourbon-and-lemonade highballs. Straight whisky is, after all, an acquired taste.
"Maple is designed to pull in people who are not whisky drinkers," says Andrew Mackay, Crown Royal's master blender.
We've seen a similar evolution before, of course, with flavoured vodkas and spiced rums. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, more than 40 per cent of spirit brands sold south of the border now have flavoured line extensions, with about 220 expressions ranging from lemon gin to wasabi vodka.
But to traditionalists like me, the latest evolution raises a question: Should it be called whisky if it tastes like maple, honey or vanilla? Legally, it's a grey zone. Federal codes in such countries as Canada and the United States tend to be stricter than for vodka, requiring that the spirit possess taste and aroma generally attributed to whisky, a grain-based distillate that derives most of its character from contact with oak barrels. Too much extraneous flavour or sugar, or not enough alcohol, and you run afoul of the definition. Red Stag is labelled "black-cherry-flavoured bourbon whiskey," but Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey is a "liqueur," as is Wild Turkey American Honey, both of which – at 35-per-cent and 35.5-per-cent alcohol, respectively – fall short of the 40-per-cent minimum for whisky.
Similar rules in the United Kingdom have prompted distillers there to label their offerings "spirit drinks," as is the case with Bushmills Irish Honey and Dewar's Highlander Honey, the latter a Scotch-based infusion launched last week in the United States.
Sample Wiser's Spiced, and you might see why it merits the strict whisky classification. My favourite of the flavoured pack, it's clearly on the drier side, with a whisper of vanilla and amped-up spiciness owing in part to the addition of rye grain (to the corn-dominated mash bill) as well as higher-than-standard 43-per-cent alcohol. In contrast, Crown Royal Maple, with its conspicuous pancake-condiment essence, is a "maple-flavoured whisky beverage."
"When we open it, it overwhelms the lab," says Crown Royal's Mackay. "So, we have to go down to the cafeteria to appraise it."
Many surely will view the unconventional newcomers as grievous corruptions – like the Starbucks Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino that lets consumers channel café-culture sophistication while satisfying their inner Dairy Queen child. But as gateways to grown-up sipping, flavoured whiskies to me seem more compelling than bubble-gum vodka. Besides, they're not going away.
"I would say that the flavoured-whisky category is in its infancy right now," says Wiser's Traynor. "I think there's a lot of opportunity for growth here."
Just spare us from wasabi Scotch, please.