Crowning the Crown

If you're reading this blog right now, I'm guessing you also read other whisky-related sites and that you've likely heard by this point that Jim Murray's official "Whisky of the Year" for 2016 is the Crown Royal Northern Harvest rye whisky—a selection that is sure to ruffle a few feathers out there in the literal universe of overly-analytical drinkers. Why would his decision to award a mass-produced Canadian whisky the title be controversial, you ask? You have to understand: there are people out there who think that the title "whisky of the year" literally means the best whisky Jim Murray drank that year. They think points and scores are factual attributes that are independent of the person giving them, objectively ranking a wine or whisky's inherent quality by statistical analysis. They believe that by totaling up those points one can conclude a clear "best" whisky winner that's based on scientific method. Besides being incredibly serious and remarkably studious, some of these whisky guys are also very careful with their perceived reputations. They've figured out what's cool to like, and what isn't cool to like—just like a teenage kid who learns to shed his C&C Music Factory records in lieu of more Pavement and Cocteau Twins albums, hoping to impress other like-minded acolytes who judge character based on a list they read off the internet. If anyone questions their credentials or points out an inconsistency, they'll throw you under the bus in two seconds if it means saving face as a true and knowledgeable whisky guy. These are the people who will likely have a meltdown when they read that Diageo giant Crown Royal has been awarded "Whisky of the Year" by Jim Murray. If I still read or cared about whisky blogs, I'd probably be reading some right now having a good laugh.

I've never met Jim Murray. I don't know anything about him. I don't know for a fact that anything I'm alluding to here is true, I'm just basing my understanding of what I see on my own conclusions and my own experiences. Here's the first thing you have to understand about this whole process: if Jim Murray's "whisky of the year" was literally the best whisky he tasted that year, then it would probably win the award over and over again as it would continue to be one the best selections annually. But that's boring! No one wants to drink the same thing over and over again, or watch the same team win the Super Bowl year after year. People want to learn about new things. They want new stories and new discoveries. They like underdogs. They like it when something can "pop from out of nowhere," knock out the champ, and win the championship belt in a gigantic upset of epic proportions. It's exciting and it makes people happy. More importantly, it gets people talking. I've been tasting Canadian whisky all year long, trying to learn more about the country's producers, doing interviews with the experts in the field, and trying to turn my customers on to some of its many charms. No luck. Canadian whisky is deader than dead at K&L. But let me tell you this: on Monday when we get more Crown Royal Northern Harvest rye back into stock, people are going to swarm on it like a Best Buy Black Friday stack of flatscreen televisions. That's the power that Jim Murray's annual award has right now. That's pretty amazing.

But what do I think of the whisky? I think the Crown Royal rye whisky is super tasty. It's been a while since I first sampled it, but I remember liking it and wishing we could do something with it (a la the Monarch when we got that in a while back). I knew that I couldn't sell it though. I knew that nothing I said would make a difference because most of our customers want single barrel, cask strength, undiluted rye, not some smooth and supple Canadian sipper. That's why I think it's great when someone out there can get people to think outside the claustrophobic confines of the current box of desirability. What will others think? Let me tell you something that's abundantly clear to me: Jim Murray does not give a fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck about what other people think. That's what's so awesome about this year's award. I let out a huge, hearty laugh when I read the news because here's the thing: whisky nerds typically hate Canadian whisky. There's no posturing or posing available to them in that genre because it can't be broken down into components, so they dismiss it outright. I already know what they're thinking: "Jim Murray obviously doesn't care about good whisky if he's willing to give the award to Crown Royal," but my friends it's entirely the opposite!! I think it's because Jim Murray cares about whisky that he gave the award to Crown Royal. Isn't that clear to anyone else?

Like many people, Jim Murray is probably sick to his stomach of people pandering for the same ten limited releases every year, focusing entirely on a handful of cult-like producers, while shitting on everything else that isn't up to snuff based on a small set of comparisons that are no longer relevant. In my opinion, Jim Murray is simply trying to use his influence to even out the playing field a little bit—to make people say, "Holy shit! You mean there's something else I should want to drink besides Pappy and Pliny?" He's no longer (if he ever was) trying to decide what's literally the best, in my opinion. He's trying to make a statement. "Whisky of the year" means in this case: this is the whisky I'm hoping people discover in 2016 and learn to appreciate. If it means a couple hundred thousand people take a new look at what's happening over the border, that's a pretty great accomplishment. It's what Murray did for Japanese whisky last year, and for American whiskey before that (see the pattern?). You could argue that guys like Murray helped to create the very demand he's now potentially working against. Maybe you're right, but the fact that he's cognizant of that potential speaks volumes to me. I've had similar revelations in my career and I changed course as a result.

What's even funnier to me is that for the last few years I've heard people say: "Why don't whiskies that I can afford and actually find ever win best whisky of the year?" just happened. So are you going to buy one?

"Oh, well I didn't mean that whisky."


Rock on, Jim Murray. You just made my whole week. This is a conversation I've been dying to have with people in the store.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll