There was excitement and surprise in the air in Manitoba when a Gimli-made whisky was crowned the world's best for 2015.
Crown Royal's Northern Harvest Rye was declared "a masterpiece" on Nov. 20. by renowned British whisky expert Jim Murray.
Murray travels the world five months out of every year tasting the world's whiskies. On average, Murray said he imbibes about 1,000 different whiskies in that time.
"I spit every single one, so that when I make these decisions I am entirely [coherent]," he said.
A typical day on the whisky trail starts at 8 a.m. in the morning and can go on past 10 p.m., Murray said. If he wakes up one day feeling a little off, he puts his busy tasting schedule on hold to protect the integrity of the process.
"If I feel that I have even a slight cold, I stop," he said. "Very, very strict rules. My staff can't wear any perfume, there's no cooking allowed anywhere — everything is controlled."
Rye flies off shelves
Since Murray granted Northern Harvest Rye a 97.5 out of 100 in his latest installment of the Whisky Bible series, Winnipeggers have flocked to Manitoba Liquor Marts to pick up what they could find of the now-famous product.
"Since the announcement went out, we've had calls from coast to coast asking for more product because people have gone in looking for this, they've bought all available on the shelves," Alastair Kidd, the whisky brand director with Diageo Canada, told CBC News.
"You hope that your whiskies get recognized, that the experts and everybody around the world enjoys it, but to get the recognition was terrific."
Kidd said it was great to see the relatively new rye win such a prestigious award. Based on the fact it had only been for sale for about a month at the time of the ruling, Kidd admits it came as a bit of a shock.
"We didn't necessarily expect to win," Kidd said. "We hoped we would be recognized and winning is really just a tremendous honour, [a] tremendous endorsement for the work the team in Gimli has done."
Trying to sell a book
Murray said that regardless of where the whiskies originate in the world, he treats them all as "absolute equals" going in.
"I listen to everything it's got to tell me in that glass," Murray said.
But not everyone outright accepted Murray's high-praise for Northern Harvest Rye.
"What this is an example of, to me, is somebody who is trying to get attention for himself and for his book, so he makes what he knows is a very controversial choice," Andrew Ferguson, owner of the Kensington Wine Market in Calgary, told CBC News on Tuesday.
Murray said he expected some blowback, but added he has so much experience and faith in the rigor of his own process that he remains confident with his decision.
"In 1992, I became the world's first all-time whisky writer. I went to my first distillery in 1975, so I spent a long time studying whisky," he said.
What's wrong with the whisky?
The first thing he looks for when tasting a whisky is what's wrong with it.
"If you find there's not that many negatives, or none at all, you then start looking at how that whisky is evolving through the temperature. I don't use water, I don't use ice, I use body temperature and watch the way it oxidizes and comes through," Murray said.
"It's patience and it's knowledge and that ability to listen to what it is saying."
After that, he marks it out of 25 in each of four categories: the nose (aroma), taste, finish and balance.
Murray said the Northern Harvest Rye's 97.5 ranking was put through the typical tests and stood up to snuff.
"It's equal to the highest score I've ever given to any whisky. It meant that I couldn't find any faults in it as such. The nose got 25 out of 25."
'Loved, loved' Gimli distillery
In the 90s, Murray said he became the first person to go coast to coast and visit every working distillery in Canada, including the Crown Royal distillery in Gimli.
"I absolutely loved, loved, loved it there," he said. "I was there early spring, the loons were calling, the ice was cracking. I'm not religious, but it was close to something profound."
Kidd said the drink celebrates the heart of what makes Canadian whisky and Crown Royal so special. He said whisky in general is experiencing a bit of a renaissance, thanks to a few popular television shows.
"I think consumers are rediscovering whiskies," Kidd said. "We've seen the growth over the last couple of years by television shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, where people are looking at whisky cocktails and traditional whisky cocktails that existed at that time. I think it sparked a new interest in the category."
If Ferguson is right about the Brit whisky expert seizing an opportunity to bolster book sales, Murray isn't letting on in the slightest.
"I have no doubt in my mind that that one is the best one I've tasted [this] year," he said.
This is the first time a Canadian whisky has ever been named the world's best.