This whisky is (relatively) recently introduced – a higher strength (45%), “robust, full-bodied” whisky. It certainly is, relative to the regular offerings and the silky Cask No. 16 and Crown Royal Reserve – but it is still quite smooth and creamy (in line with the other crown royal products), and certainly does not have as big a body as I was expecting from the label. It is distilled, with the other Crown Royal products, at the Diageo plant in Gimli, Manitoba.
This is Canada’s number 1 selling whisky – and it does have a story. Sam Bronfman, who originally oversaw the production of the whisky, waited 25 years to export to his largest export market (the US), to ensure he would have enough mature stock to keep up with demand. This blend was originally crafted to mark the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939. It was supposed to be a whisky fit for royalty, with the original stock, apparently, including whiskies well over twenty years old.
According to Davin De Kergommeaux’s book Canadian Whisky, in 1914 Thomas Seagram (the son of Joseph Seagram, one of the big pioneers of Canadian Whisky) asked the distiller in the now defunct Waterloo Distillery to provide him with a good barrel of whisky to celebrate his marriage, and it was liked so much that it was decided to be brought to market – and this became Seagram’s VO. The meaning of VO, apparently, is still unclear. It was a key illicit whisky for thirsty Americans during prohibition, and continues in production today, though a few flavour nuances have changed.
This whisky has been around for quite some time – according to Davin De Kergommeaux’s fabulous book Canadian Whisky (which you should read if you haven’t) this was the first whisky distilled and matured under Joseph Seagram’s sole ownership of Waterloo Distillery, when it was around (now the brands still being produced are made largely in Gimli, Manitoba in the distillery that produces Crown Royal). Originally, it had been matured in sherry casks imported from Spain – though now it largely uses casks recycled from Crown Royal production. That is somewhat ironic, as this was one of the key whiskies that enabled the establishment of the Crown Royal brand.
Highland Park is one of my favourite distilleries, and I love their line of products. They’re famous for their use of Orcadian peat to smoke their barley before it is distilled – this offers aromas and flavours of heather. Peat is made from compressed and decomposed vegetation over many years, and Orcadian peat is largely composed of heather because, frankly, the island is too windy for trees. Heather is quite a distinct, unique smell which any walker in Scottish or English meadows and fells will be acquainted to. I myself loved family vacations in the lake district of England where some of my relatives dwell – and Highland Park whiskies take me back to those times.
This whisky is quite unique as it is aged via a “solera” process, used frequently in sherry, where you have a big solera vat (in the case of glenfiddich, made of oregon pine) where the distillers add in new aged whisky before they remove some – and the vat is always kept at least half full. Thus, you add whisky, and remove some – but the whisky you remove contains bits of whiskies as old as the vat itself, resulting in a mix of whiskies from the most recent filling to much older fillings.