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story.lead_photo.caption Crown Royal - Photo by Philip Martin

My late father-in-law Yanko was not mobbed up.

On the other hand, he knew people. And before he'd settled in the Cleveland suburb of Parma, he'd owned a tavern in Pennsylvania. Running a bar, you learn things. Such as how much a bottle of Chivas Regal costs, and what people might be willing to pay for it.

So knowing people and knowing things, Yanko occasionally found himself with opportunities. Such as the one that occurred when a few cases of Scotch didn't fall off the back of a truck. (Yanko knew they didn't fall off the back of a truck because if they had, there would have been breakage, and all these bottles were intact.) When a gentleman offered these cases of Chivas Regal to Yanko at a price that was substantially under not only market but wholesale cost, Yanko rightly figured that if he didn't take them off his hands, well, someone else would. And someone else would probably offer to sell Yanko a bottle of Chivas Regal for a dollar or two less than he might pay at the state-run liquor store, which would still be an opportunity, though one of considerably lesser order.

So fortune favoring the bold and all, Yanko took the gentleman up on his offer and took possession of the Chivas Regal, which he proceeded to dispense to friends and acquaintances, many of whom appreciated the gesture enough to remunerate Yanko. It worked out for everyone, except possibly the state Alcoholic Beverage Control board and the tax collector.

But Yanko had a lot of Scotch. So he decided to branch out beyond his closest circles of friends. He took a bottle of Chivas Regal to his boss at Higbee's -- the department store made famous in A Christmas Story -- and laid out the situation. Yanko's boss was a Scotch drinker; Yanko had a lot of Scotch. Maybe there was a way they could help each other out.

Yanko's boss took the bottle and eyed it suspiciously. He slit the seal with his thumbnail and cracked off the top. He took a swig, set the bottle down on his desk, leaned back in his great leather chair and sighed, "Ah, the good stuff."

He smiled at Yanko and said, "I'll take all you've got."

And Yanko looked back at him stone-faced and said, "That is all I've got. Sorry."

Yanko wouldn't sell his boss the Chivas because Yanko had his honor. The boss had offended Yanko by implying that his (probably stolen) Scotch might also have been counterfeit. (Not that Yanko was above decanting Calvert Soft Whiskey into Jack Daniel's bottles because his guzzling brothers couldn't tell the difference.) Besides, Yanko didn't have any trouble moving the Scotch.

. . .

What I like best about this story is the boss's confidence in pronouncing whatever he'd just taken into his mouth "the good stuff." Because a lot of people who are reading this column would probably not agree that Chivas Regal is the good stuff, and some of them might not even grant it medium-stuff status.

This is because people who read and write columns like this one are snobs about potable alcohol; all of us probably have our own ideas about what the good stuff is and isn't, and some of us might even be willing to fight about it. I'm not a particular fan of Chivas Regal and find the idea of treating it like it's something special ridiculous -- it's perfectly decent blended Scotch, but I'm into single malts. (Still, while I keep Macallan Cask Strength on hand, the Scotch-like beverage I drink most often is Suntory's Hibiki Japanese Whisky, a blend of "innumerous malt and grain whiskies" per the promotional materials.)

But it seems like people of Yanko's generation really thought Chivas Regal (and the prohibitively expensive Johnny Walker Blue) were signifiers of a certain elegant social status. When I was in high school, Chivas Regal was the sort of thing that fathers kept locked up in breakfronts, sometimes with a tiny spotlight shining on it. All I knew about it was it was expensive and "classy."

These days I understand a little bit how marketing works. Chivas Regal isn't particularly expensive, and the people who are invested in presenting themselves as knowing things about whisky regard its silver trappings with bemusement, kind of the same way some of us regard those guitars they sell on QVC. That doesn't mean it's not palatable and that some of its fans like it because it's a surprisingly popularly priced blended Scotch with a specific flavor profile, only that it has a branding and marketing history some of us can enjoy as kitsch.

The "good stuff" is whatever you like. Some people buy Rebel Yell because of the bottle. A lot of people buy Crown Royal for the velvet bags.

. . .

That's why we used to buy Crown Royal.

When I was in college, everybody had a Crown Royal bag. I was a golfer, so I used one as a head cover for my persimmon-headed driver. Other people put all kinds of things in those bags. Some people put loose change in them. Some people put things that were green, leafy and contraband in them.

Once in a criminal law class we got legendary professor Cheney Cleveland Joseph Jr. to spend the bulk of a class period discussing whether a police officer who saw one of those bags hanging from a rear-view mirror might have probable cause to stop and search the vehicle. Dean Joseph thought not, though I have since heard law enforcement types refer to them as P.C. (as in "probable cause") bags. Courts have generally upheld convictions where officers conducted warrantless searches of these bags -- in 2008, the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Tennessee upheld an arrest and conviction that occurred after a Crown Royal bag from which a $20 bill protruded fell out of the lap of a suspect as he was exiting his vehicle. Police searched the bag and found a quantity of crack cocaine in it.

Most of us drank the whisky too, but that was the secondary reason for saving up to buy a bottle of Crown Royal. And maybe it still is.

At a liquor store I frequent, the staff keeps the Crown Royal behind the counter. Not because it's an especially pricey Canadian whisky (no "e" in Canadian "whisky"); you can pick up a 750 ml. bottle for about $26. But because it's pretty easy to shoplift the bags.

Seagram's realizes the bags -- which I remember as being velvet or at least velveteen or velour but these days are flannel -- are one of the major draws of the product; if you go to the Crown Royal website you can order the bags in different colors with custom messages stitched on. (They sell for $9.95 each, no matter what size you order, and depending on the style bag you can get two or three lines of text.)

Seagram created Crown Royal back in the 1930s to commemorate a visit by George VI (portrayed by Colin Firth in The King's Speech and Ben Mendelsohn in Darkest Hour) to Canada. It wasn't available in this country until 1964, but it has obviously held on to a respectable market share as perennially the third most popular brown spirit -- behind Jack Daniel's and Jim Beam -- in the United States despite being relatively expensive for a Canadian whisky. (From 1995-2008, Crown Royal's sales more than doubled even as the overall Canadian whisky market contracted by almost 10 percent.)

It's not hard to understand that popularity; the brand claims it tried more than 600 different blends before hitting on the precise combination of woody spice and toffee sweetness that gives Crown Royal its inoffensive smoothness. While Crown Royal is pretty nice neat, a simple 80 proof whisky with a little warmth but no discernible burn, one of the unspoken virtues of Canadian whisky for neophyte drinkers is how completely it can seem to disappear when mixed with Coca-Cola or ginger ale.

In recent years, Crown Royal expanded the line with apple and vanilla-flavored varietals I will never try (a maple-flavored version took off fast but crashed after a few months). In 2016, spirits critic Jim Murray named the modestly priced (about $30) Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye the "world whisky of the year."

While, as with a lot of products, it's distinguished only by its trade dress (which includes an ornate Edwardian bottle as well as the bags), there's no real reason to hate on Crown Royal. (Unless you've had the misfortune to mistake its mannered finish for a lack of potency; you drink this stuff like wine and you're going to have a difficult morning after.)

And yes, whisky snobs are likely to start talking about "better" alternatives whenever you break out a bottle of Crown. And there are more interesting methods of social lubrication.

But Yanko -- and my father -- always had a bottle of Crown Royal on hand. There's a part of me that enjoys nostalgia and hearing stories about the good stuff.

Email:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

blooddirtangels.com

Style on 02/25/2018

Print Headline: 'The good stuff' is whatever you like

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  • MaxCady
    February 25, 2018 at 1:09 p.m.

    Scotch (coffin varnish) is an acquired taste I never quite acquired. My Granny drank Black Velvet with a splash of 7up and lived to 103 years old!!

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