Royal Velvet (40% alc./vol.)
October 26, 2010
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.
Highly recommended. ★★★★☆