What is Black Velvet Canadian Whisky?

— August 13, 2019

​The history and origin behind the newly acquired brand

The Origin of Black Velvet

Black Velvet Canadian Whisky was developed in 1946 and was first introduced into market in 1951. However, the legacy of the brand began nearly 95 years earlier in 1857 when the Gilbey brothers, Walter and Alfred came home to Hertfordshire, England after serving in the Crimean War. In search of a business venture, they began importing wine from South Africa which quickly developed into a full-blown company as family members joined the brothers. Finding they had a knack for the spirits industry, in 1872 Walter and Alfred built their first gin distillery in England. Gilbey’s Gin quickly became popular worldwide and in 1906 the brand was introduced in Canada. With international expansion came international success. On September 11, 1933, the brothers opened the doors of W&A Gilbey Distillery in Toronto, Canada where the first Canadian Gilbey spirits were produced. Soon after, the brothers were joined by distillers Crosbie Hicks and John S. (Jack) Napier who developed several different Canadian Whiskies such as Old Gold, Special Old, Very Best, Red Velvet, Gold Velvet, Royal Velvet and Black Velvet. While the 10-year-old Royal Velvet was expected to be the top selling product, Black Velvet became the company’s leading product and is now the number two selling Canadian Whisky in the world.

Why “Black Velvet?”

Originally, Black Velvet was to be named Black Label. Due to potential confusion with the classic Johnny Walker Black Label Scotch, W&A Gilbey reconsidered. When Distiller John Napier had his first taste of mature whisky, he instantly compared the texture and consistency to velvet – thus the name Black Velvet was coined.

The Black Velvet Distilling Company

In 1962, W&A Gilbey garnered industry interest and took on International Distillers and Vintners (IDV) as a partner – which would later become Diageo. The 1970’s brought growth for the Canadian Whisky category and in turn, in 1972 and 1973 IDV built Palliser Distillery in Lethbridge, Alberta, located on the banks of the Oldman River near a desert called ‘The Badlands’, to support production of the wildly successful Black Velvet Canadian Whisky and Smirnoff Vodka. In 1999, Diageo sold several Canadian Whisky brands, including Black Velvet, to Canandaigua Brands, now known as Constellation. In 2009, Constellation shifted focus to mid-premium brands like Black Velvet and moved its Whisky production to the Palliser Distillery which was renamed The Black Velvet Distilling Company. 

The Product

This product has stood the test of time with a steady consumer base after 65 years of distribution. According to Davin de Kergommeaux’s Canadian Whisky the New Portable Expert: Volume Two, Black Velvet Canadian Whisky features a flavor profile of, “crème caramel, black fruit, and nose-tickling spirit, dusty rye, fresh timber followed by glowing hot pepper and ginger with hints of cloves, fresh lively, and bright.”

Historic, Iconic Marketing Programs

In the 1960s and 1970s, Black Velvet was extremely popular with vast marketing programs featuring famous spokespeople. In 1969, Black Velvet introduced the first Black Velvet Lady, Patricia Victoria Miller. Through the years, other Black Velvet Ladies have included: Model Christie Brinkley; Actress Cybill Shepherd; Model and Actress Kim Alexis; Model Cheryl Tiegs; and Model Kelly Emberg.

Additionally, several notable actors and singers have served as the face of Black Velvet including Larry Hagman from the hit TV shows Dallas, I Dream of Jeannie, and Knots Landing; George Burns, American comedian, actor, singer, and writer; Country Music Icon Tanya Tucker; and Telly Savalas who is best known for playing New York detective Theo Kojak in the American drama series Kojak.

Making Black Velvet

The Black Velvet Distilling Company features an automated operation system from grain to final product requiring just two employees per shift. The distillery features four shifts per day and a total of 60 employees, 15 of which are responsible for testing product to ensure it is consistent and up to standard. The Black Velvet recipe is a majority corn mashbill inspired by Hicks and Napier’s original recipe. The distillery uses approximately 1,500 tons of corn each year to create the second largest selling Canadian Whisky. The base Whisky distillation process begins by adding the mash to continuous jet cookers and a rotation of eleven fermenters. During this process, dry yeast is added, and the mash goes from 8 percent alc/vol to 13 or 14 percent alc/vol. The product is then transported to a four-column continuous still consisting of a beer column, extractive distillation column, a fusel column, a rectifying column and several copper condensers. Once the base Whisky is produced, a process called “blending at birth” takes place in which the base Whisky is blended with a rye flavoring Whisky that has been aged for two to six years. Once blended, the product is stored in used Bourbon barrels at 77 percent alc/vol to age for a minimum of three years. The barrels are then placed in one of the three Black Velvet Distilling Company Warehouses among approximately 340,000 other barrels. Once the product is ready, it is bottled in Lethbridge or sent to Kentucky or California to be bottled and prepared for distribution. 

Read more about the acquisition here.

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