Royal Velvet Canadian Whisky

Royal Velvet (40% alc./vol.)

October 26, 2010

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Pine pitch, Canada balsam, butterscotch, clove oil, dusty rye, pickle juice, hot pepper, flowers, and assorted fruits all neatly stitched into one. ★★★★☆

In 1857, brothers, Walter and Alfred Gilbey, then in their mid-twenties, had just returned to Hertfordshire, England from service as pay clerks in the Crimean War. At loose ends, they took the advice of – and a loan from – their older brother, Henry, himself a flourishing wine merchant, and they began importing wine from South Africa. Success came quickly and the brothers were soon joined in the enterprise by various members of their extended family, including two brothers-in-law, two nephews, a cousin, and older brother Henry, himself. In 1869 the family business expanded into new premises in Camden Town, in north-west London, where, in 1872, they built their first gin distillery. Yes, those Gilbeys.

Soon the firm was exporting its Gilbey’s gin around the world, introducing it to Canada in 1906. Again, success came quickly and the Canadian sales manager, C. P. Douglas, suggested Gilbey’s build a distillery in Canada to meet demand while at the same time taking advantage of tax breaks which were being accorded to Canadian distillers. In 1931   W & A Gilbey (Canada) was formed and on September 11, 1933, just months before Prohibition ended in the U.S., the first drops of Canadian Gilbey spirit flowed from the stills at their Toronto distillery. Eventually Gilbey’s was operating twenty-two distilleries in eighteen countries around the world, including its first whisky distilleries in Scotland – Glen Spey, Strathmill, and Knockando.

In 1946, Gilbey’s tried its hand at distilling whisky in its Toronto distillery as well. Over the next few years, distillers Crosbie Hucks and John S. (Jack) Napier developed a handful of Canadian whiskies, including Old Gold, Special Old, Very Best, and the four Velvets. These included the three-year-old Red Velvet, five-year-old Golden Velvet, six-year-old Black Velvet, and Royal Velvet which was aged a full ten years. Royal Velvet was also known as Regal Velvet in the U.S. where it sported a black label, otherwise identical to that of Royal Velvet, pictured above. Although Royal Velvet was the top of the line, it was Black Velvet, first introduced in 1951, that became Gilbey’s leading brand, spurred on by huge bulk sales to the U.S., where it remains a top seller to this day.

So the story goes, it was Napier, who, having savoured his first glass of the mature whisky, coined the name “Black Velvet” for his new blend. The marketing department had wanted to call it “Black Label” but perhaps in deference to their Master Distiller Napier, or perhaps to avoid confusion with Johnnie Walker Black Label, finally opted to use the Black Velvet moniker instead.

A family saga of corporate takeovers

In 1962, faced with declining profits globally, Gilbey’s was forced to take on a partner. No longer a family business, the Gilbey name was swallowed up by the new company: International Distillers and Vintners (IDV). Then, in 1972, Grand Metropolitan Hotels acquired the new firm, IDV.

The 1970s were heady days for the Canadian whisky industry; the world just couldn’t get enough Canadian whisky. So in 1973, IDV built Palliser Distillery in Lethbridge, Alberta, to support burgeoning sales of Black Velvet Canadian whisky and its other successful product, Smirnoff vodka. The Toronto distillery continued to produce gin for some time before it was forced to close. The distillery was sold to the Toronto Board of Education who sadly, had it demolished.

But how did Black Velvet come to be a Schenley whisky?

In 1990, back east in Montreal, Schenley’s Valleyfield distillery was acquired by United Distillers (UD), a company that was the result of a merger in 1987 of the British firm, Distillers Company Limited (DCL), with Scotch producers, Arthur Bell & Sons. Guinness owned both firms at the time, so Schenley, in the guise of United Distillers (Canada), became a Guinness subsidiary.

IDV, owner of Black Velvet, was a separate and distinct company that reported to Grand Metropolitan. But in December 1997, Guinness merged with Grand Metropolitan to become Diageo. As a result, United Distillers and IDV were integrated to form a whole new corporate entity: United Distillers and Vintners. Suddenly Toronto’s Black Velvet Canadian Whisky Company, by then firmly ensconced in Alberta, and Montreal’s Schenley Canada, had become stepsisters.

The Alberta – Quebec Connection

In 1999, Diageo sold the Valleyfield distillery to the Barton Division of Canandaigua Brands. The sale included Black Velvet and a number of other Canadian whisky brands. However, Diageo opted to retain the Gilbey name. Essentially, Black Velvet was kicked out of the Gilbey family.

The corporate divestments and acquisitions continued in the new millennium. By the year 2000, Canandaigua Brands had changed its name to Constellation and in 2009 the company decided to divest most of its value-priced spirits in order to concentrate on mid-premium brands such as Black Velvet. Along with this decision, Constellation sold the Valleyfield distillery back to Diageo and moved production of all of its whisky brands to the Palliser plant in Alberta, which it had re-named the Black Velvet Distillery. Thus Black Velvet became a division of Schenley and Schenley’s head office moved from Valleyfield in Quebec to Lethbridge, Alberta. Golden Wedding, OFC, and a number of other Schenley brands are now distilled, aged, and blended along with Black Velvet, in Lethbridge.

Black Velvet Distillery is the last remaining spirit plant left in the worldwide Constellation organization. Diageo, meanwhile, shifted production of Smirnoff vodka from Lethbridge to Valleyfield.

Back to the Velvet

Of the four original “Velvet” whiskies, only Black Velvet remains in production, but let’s take a look back at Royal Velvet, one of the early whiskies that started Gilbey’s and IDV on the road to such success.

Nose:  Starts out a bit muted and dry, but soon develops some butterscotch which fades then returns quite vividly after a few minutes. Slowly, some sweet fresh sawdust and dry oak lumber notes typical of well-aged rye whisky emerge. A broad spectrum of rye notes ranges from dusty rye to hints of rye spices, including cinnamon and cloves, then on to sour rye, with just inklings of pickle juice. Suggestions of acetone or shellac are a prelude to a very complex and pleasant amalgam of pine pitch, fresh-sawn pine knots, and chrysanthemums. And as if that is not enough, the nose just keeps unfolding with essences of pipe tobacco, sweet cigarette tobacco, and some fruitiness, including green fruit, a fresh fruit stall at the market, then dark fruits and raisins. Chrysanthemum isn’t the only flowery fragrance that emerges. There is also a vague suggestion of sweet lilacs and vanilla, even. This really is a marketplace of aromas, almost as if your nose is strolling down a crowded narrow aisle between flower stalls and fresh fruit stalls. Although the wood and the rye notes remain constant, new aromas, including oatmeal, diluted honey, faint gunpowder, and furniture polish, surface with each new tasting. This is a very complex nose indeed.

Palate: Though the nose is dry, at first the palate seems almost watery. But soon, waves of flavour arrive, including fleeting oak, fresh-cut pine, pepper, vaguely sweet butterscotch, and lots of clean woody notes. These are rounded off with a suggestion of dusty old books and old wooden furniture. There is no hint of oak tannins, but a rather tantalizing woody bitterness prevails. Is it pine pitch or is it Canada balsam? The wood remains front and centre, but it’s very elegant and wonderfully well balanced against clove oil, gingery zest, hints of cinnamon, and pepper which, although not overly hot, does become quite warming. Ripe fruit, tropical fruits, and dark dried fruits are ever-present in the background, as are slight hints of bitter tobacco, shellac, sandalwood, sweet solvents, and hard candy. Amazing complexity – a good sipping whisky for a cold Canadian winter evening. Who ever thought liquid gold would taste like liquid pine lumber?

Finish:  Very long. Fresh wood, fading hot pepper, a slight astringency, and just a hint of something sweetish.  Eventually, it just fades out with some final vaguely fruity notes at the very end.

Empty Glass:  Fresh firewood, fragrant dry lumber, the vaguest hint of real maple sugar, butterscotch, green apples, and not much else.

As a collectible, Royal Velvet Canadian Whisky (there was also a Royal Velvet Bourbon, with a very similar logo, distilled by Old Kentucky Distillery prior to Prohibition in 1919) is worth whatever a buyer is willing to pay or a seller prepared to accept. The bottle I had was a gift . As for its replacement, I’ll start the bidding right now for a sealed bottle of Royal Velvet with a good fill level and not too many marks on the label, at $125.00 plus shipping. And if the original price sticker is still on it, I’ll add another $10.00, to boot.

Collectible.

Highly recommended. ★★★★☆

Black Velvet Reserve 8 year old reviewed here
Black Velvet 3 year old reviewed here
Black Velvet Deluxe reviewed here.


Comments

22 Responses to “Royal Velvet (40% alc./vol.)”

  1. Farrukh Shahzad:

    AOA,

    I love Royal Velvet 40%.

    • Davin:

      Yeah, It’s good whisky, but very difficult to find.

  2. Bill Kautter:

    I have a bottle of Regal Velvet that was bottled in 1977 under a limited edition supply. It has not been opened and I can not seem to find much information about its taste or worth.

    • Davin:

      Hi Bill,
      Regal Velvet was the name used in the U.S. for Royal Velvet. They are the same whisky except that the label is black in the U.S. and kind of a rusty brown in Canada. Both are ten years old. The flavour should be the same as what I described above for Royal Velvet. In other words you have a really flavourful whisky. The value would be in the $125 to $150 range but it could go higher in the years ahead. If it was mine, I would crack it open and share it with some special friends (and without ginger ale!).
      Davin

      • bob:

        Davin,
        I just drank a bottle with some friends while we were somking some fine cigars and food. I was a great whiskey. If you want to sell it I’ll buy it from you. I’m in the US, georgia.

        • Davin:

          Hi Bob, thanks for your offer but I NEVER sell whisky. I just buy it and only what I want for my personal use. In any case, my bottle of Royal Velvet is now empty. If you like it though, you’ll love Danfield’s 21 year old. It is made by the same distiller.

  3. Chris Spearman:

    I work at the Black Velvet Distilling Company in Lethbridge as one of the management team.

    We also produce Danfield’s 10 year old and Danfield’s 21 Year Old Whisky.

    The 21 Year Old is receiving rave reviews from many independent whisky experts ( Parker rating 96 ).

    I would recommend Danfield’s 21 Year Old as a very affordable alternative to Royal Velvet and a far better whisky.

    • Davin:

      I just have to agree with you Chris, that Danfield’s 21 year old is really wonderful whisky, and still a great bargain. I’m glad to hear there is abundant supply.

  4. john:

    hello, i also have a bottle of royal velvet, 1969, looks exact same as in pic above,,, i would have to say that it is indeed very rare, as i have done alot of searching and can not find any info at all on royal velvet canadian whiskey other than this site,,,

    must be worth more than $125-$150 in my opinion…

    • Davin:

      Hi John,
      Yes, you certainly would think so, but the fact is that old bottles of whisky really don’t go up in value very much. Whisky that ages in the cask may increase in value, but not so much once it has been bottled. Just a a few weeks ago I saw a bottle of Canadian Club with a 1937 tax strip sell for $150. It just boggles the mind. Honestly, I think you would be very lucky even to get $125 for that bottle as there are very few people who would be interested and prices are set by a willing buyer and a willing seller. Royal Velvet is very special whisky; if i were you I’d find a few friends and crack it open and have a shared story that will last long after $125 will be forgotten. Sorry, the market for these old bottles is very small indeed.
      Davin

  5. john:

    Well i know nothing about whisky so i will take your word for it. Maybe was just hoping that i had an uncracked bottle of gold maybe,, lol. My father-in-law moved out of his house and we ended up with most the stock from his bar.
    We finished off a mostly full bottle of Ballantines finest last weekend with friends,, perhaps next time it will be the royal velvet.

    Thanks for the information and great read.

  6. john:

    oops i mean Ballantine’s 30 year..

  7. Chris:

    Hello,

    My grandfather had a bottle of Gilbey’s Very Best, Canadian Whisky-1959. When he passed away, it was passed down to my father. The bottle is sealed and has the original box. Any idea what this might be worth?

    • Davin:

      Hi Chris,
      This is very special whisky and should be a collector’s item, but sadly, there is not much interest in old Canadian whisky. This is especially true for lesser-known brands. You might get in the range of $60 to $120. Your best bet is to look for similar items on e-Bay and compare prices (selling price, not asking price as there are some outrageous asking prices for bottles that never end up sold). Or you could check whiskyauction.com and go through the archives. If it was mine I’d crack it open with a few good friends and enjoy it (without mixer).

      • Dave:

        Davin, My grandpa worked for Gilbys. When he retierd he was given a bottle of Royal Velvet 1969 bottle # 000026
        I now have it. the seal has not been broken on it. Is it worth anything more because of the bottle number and the fact that seal hasn’t been cracked ?
        Dave,

        • Davin:

          Sadly, no. This is good whisky – I have an open bottle – and quite collectible, but there just aren’t any collectors out there to buy it. I suggest you save it for a special occasion then pour it for friends and family and toast the memory of your grandfather.

  8. Kerry:

    I recently was given a bottle of Palliser Reserve whisky which is marked 8 years old and the exise tax label is 1969. I am too young to know this brand, although I see it is now Black Velvet. It looks brand new (so I’m thinking it was kept in a dark, dry place) and doesn’t seem to have lost any of it’s volume. Is this brand any good? Can you drink whisky this old?

    • Davin:

      Yes, it should be good to drink and it has no special value so you can go ahead an open it without worrying about destroying a priceless antique. Enjoy!

  9. Marilyn:

    Hello;
    We have a bottle of Royal Velvet Canadian Whiskey 1974. Is there any value in this?

    Also,Royal Salute Scotch Whiskey
    Chivas Brothers limited edition Wade England, Aberdeen Scotland is this anything?
    Thanks

    • Davin:

      No idea about the Royal Salute, but the Royal Velvet is probably worth around $50 or 60 if you can find a buyer. If it was mine, I’d just open it and enjoy it.

  10. Franklin Newhart:

    What would you give for an Earthen bottle of Western Indian trade whisky. I am guessing mid to late 1800′s. Whisky was made by “Who The Hell Knows” Bottle has molded into it “One Imperial Quart” Corked and Red Wax Sealed. Wax is crusted on the outside but is still pliable and seal is good.

    • Davin:

      I don’t collect things like that. Maybe you could donate it to a museum or Fort whoop-Up in Lethbridge.


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