Distillery visits: Crown Royal at Gimli

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In the past few years I’ve been fortunate to visit a lot of distilleries, ranging from tiny start-ups in rural Alaska  to massive whiskey operations in Kentucky and Tennessee. There’s almost always some interesting detail to be gleaned at the small places; quirks like a still cobbled together from a beer keg that runs batches so slowly that the distiller has to spend the night beside  it sleeping on a cot, or a doorway to a bottling room cut too narrowly for a pallet of bottles to fit through, so that the bottles have to laboriously carried by hand in and out of the room.

The bigger distilleries are impressive in their own right. The column stills often extend for multiple stories into the air; the operations are finely tuned to work continuously, requiring a complex supply chain of grains, yeasts, and mashes to be ever-ready for distillation. These are less romantic, sometimes feeling more like an industrial factory than a place producing finely crafted spirits.

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After enough visits to the  big distilleries, I’ve started to feel like I’ve entered a plateau in knowledge. I know enough to get the gist of what’s happening in almost all of them, but not enough to know what additional information to ask about unless a distillery is doing something really unusual. A professional distiller would undoubtedly spot all kinds of interesting details, but after visiting several highly efficient distilleries, there’s not as much for me to pick up as a casual visitor.

Thus when I was invited to be a guest on a press trip to the Crown Royal distillery in Gimli, Manitoba, I was on the fence about going. I mentioned this to my friend Joe Spiegel, the importer of Icelandic Brennivin, who excitedly insisted that I had to go. Gimli, it turns out, is not just the name of a dwarf in the Lord of the Rings. It’s also the largest Icelandic settlement in North America. My curiosity piqued as much by the history of the town as by the whisky distillery, I accepted the invitation. When else was I likely to end up in Manitoba?

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Gimli, located about an hour north of Winnipeg, is home to a bit more than 6,000 people. Two events stand out its history. The first is its founding by Icelanders fleeing a series of bad winters and a dramatic volcanic eruption for the promise of a new land offering bad winters without the volcanic eruptions. They settled in Gimli on the shores of Lake Manitoba, creating a semi-independent settlement called New Iceland in the 1870s, which was eventually fully integrated into the province. Their legacy is still visible in the annual Icelandic Festival, in street names like “Odin’s Way” and “Siglavik Road,” and in the giant viking statue that stands at the shore of the lake.

The second event is the Gimli Glider, a near-disastrous aviation incident that occurred in 1983. The Canadian government had recently converted from Imperial to metric measurements, resulting in a miscalculation of the fuel needed to power a Boeing 767 from Montreal to Edmonton. Air Canada Flight 143 ran out of fuel en route and was left with no choice but to glide to a rough landing at Gimli’s abandoned air force base, directly on to a runway that had, unbeknownst to the pilots, been converted to use for go-cart racing. Miraculously, no one died. It’s a hell of a story. (If anyone needs a name for a Crown Royal cocktail, “Gimli Glider” appears to have not yet been claimed.)

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I didn’t arrive until dusk, and there’s not much to the winter nightlife in Gimli, so my time exploring the town was unfortunately rather limited. I would have loved a little more time to roam the shore; strolling along as the cold wind comes in off Lake Manitoba, it’s easy to imagine why Icelanders felt at home here.

At Joe’s insistence, I did come prepared for one mission: A visit to Brennivins Pizza Hüs. (In Iceland “Brennivin” is both a brand name and a generic word for liquor, which can be confusing. I don’t know why it’s used here to name a pizza place.) It was closed when I got there after dinner, but I’d packed the appropriate attire for a photo. I spied a couple bottles of Brennivin inside, but alas, could not complete the trifecta by drinking Brennivin at Brennivins while wearing a Brennivin t-shirt. The menu here is wild, with pizzas coming in African, Ukrainian, Alfredo, Perogi, Mexican, and all kinds of other varieties, some of which sound a little off-putting. I want to go back!

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My weird obsession with aquavit aside, this was a whisky trip, and so of course we were greeted with some warming Crown Royal Hot Toddies and other excellent cocktails served at an ice bar within a heated tent by the lake. Our first night’s activities were relaxed and experiential, a prelude to the more informational tour awaiting the following day.

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The highlight of this was an end of night ice carving challenge. I’ve cut small cubes of ice into very rough spheres, but I’d never taken on anything this big. Our challenge was to carve the blocks into the shape of Crown Royal bottle.

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We were sort of successful, if you’re grading on a very generous curve.

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The next morning we went out to visit the actual distillery. Unlike the other large whiskey distilleries I’ve visited, which cater to tourists with highly organized tours, scripted guides, and big visitors’ centers, the Gimli distillery is strictly business. Whiskey tourism is big in Kentucky and Tennessee, but not yet in Manitoba; we donned safety vests, glasses, and ear plugs for the tour instead of boarding branded buses.

We weren’t permitted to take photographs within the distillery, but it was a fascinating walk-through, with stops by the hammering grain mills, the vast fermenters (some of which are open), and up and around the multi-story stills. One striking thing about the place is that despite its size and complexity, we only occasionally crossed paths with the people working in it. It’s a highly automated facility, overseen in one central control room, that produces a mind-boggling amount of whisky with a modest labor force.

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Several types of whisky are distilled here, ranging from high-rye and high-corn whiskeys distilled in batches similar to US standards and used for flavoring, to much lighter blending whiskies made in the giant columns.

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Though there’s not much romance in the distilling side of the operation, I did walk away with more insight into the work that goes into blending. We got to meet with their blenders and engage in a much dumbed-down version of what they do for a living, trying our hand at sensory analysis on different samples to see if we could consistently spot differences, and creating our own blends from a handful of whisky samples. (The blenders themselves draw on hundreds of barrels to make a consistent a product, compared to the seven or eight we worked with.)

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As with almost any whisky tour, the visit to a barrel warehouse was the most memorable part. When you pile up thousands of barrels of cask-strength whisky in an enclosed space, the concentrated aromas of wood and whisky are wonderfully sweet. Thanks to tight insulation, they were more intense here than in any other distillery I’ve visited, so much so that the air had to be sampled for safety before we were allowed to enter. My first breaths caught in my chest while I adapted to it, and even after that I avoided breathing too deeply. It’s a heady place!

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Inside the barrel room we got to sample directly from four barrels. Ordinarily these would be blended as flavoring whiskeys, mingled with the cleaner base whiskies to create the familiar Crown Royal bottlings. This was a rare opportunity to try them as is. Some of these were very good; a high-proof bourbon-style whiskey that had spent more than a decade in wood stood out in particular for me. Unblended, these don’t fit the profile of Crown Royal’s finished product (or that of most Canadian whisky), which aims for a softer, easy-drinking palate. If they ever did release them in limited quantities, though, I think serious whiskey drinkers would be surprised and delighted to try them.

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Our trip concluded with a final surprise: A helicopter flight over Gimli and the Crown Royal distillery. I’ve been on more distillery tours than I can count, and this is the first that has involved a helicopter, and it was my first time in a helicopter period.

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Is a helicopter tour really necessary for understanding the production of Canadian whisky? Clearly not. But it is really cool. So in an attempt to tie this into whisky production, I’ll note that the view of Manitoba from the air  drives homes that the land is really, really, really flat. And that’s good for growing corn and rye, which is necessary for making the whisky.

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[Photos not taken by my are courtesy of Crown Royal.]

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