I didn't need to say anything else. I knew what it was that I was asking about, as did the half-a-dozen or so other customers who'd also noticed it, plus the store attendant who'd noticed that we'd noticed it.
'It' had not been what any of us had expected to see in a liquor store in small-town Manitoba three days before Christmas. 'It' is currently the most desired alcoholic beverage in all of Canada - and, for all I know, in the world right now. 'It' has caused queues to form outside liquor stores before they open and has sold out within an hour of going on sale in any such store, whatever the province (the staff in this particular one hadn't even expected to have any delivered this side of the New Year). 'It' has caused employees of such establishments to remind friends and neighbours that they are not allowed to hold or reserve items.
'It', the most sought-after product in Canada at the moment, is a bottle of Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye, a whisky that was propelled into the limelight recently after being proclaimed as the World Whisky of the Year by no less an authority than Jim Murray, author of the highly influential Whisky Bible which is published annually. He apparently tasted more than a thousand whiskies before reaching his decision, and proclaimed this one to be a "masterpiece". Many Canadians would agree, if they could get hold of a bottle. Across the country, people are divided between those who have managed to get hold of some and try it, and the have-nots. The latter are in the majority.
For several seconds after I saw the almost-empty case of it in the Beausejour branch of the MLCC Liquor Mart, where I'd gone to get a miniature of something with which to ignite the Christmas pudding, a few thoughts rushed through my head. Would my British credit card work in small-town Manitoba? Of course it would, don't be silly. Were I to buy a bottle, would I be able to open it and sample the contents, then take the rest back home to London? No, that's not how it works.
Sadly, such thoughts were merely academic as the man in front of me grabbed the last three and, with a look on his face usually reserved for those who've backed the right horse or won the lottery, proceeded to the till. The rest of us were left staring at the empty case. Someone said something about how he'd heard that a store in another town nearby had had a delivery; someone else observed that by the time they got there it would be sold out.
"That didn't take long," said the attendant as he cleared away the case. I asked him how much they were charging for a bottle of this most elusive of spirits, and he showed me the price-card: $32.95, not including sales tax. On the current exchange rates, that's easily south of twenty quid.
"You know, you could double that," I replied. Hell, they could just add a number '1' to the beginning of the price and people would still buy it. "That guy," he said, referring to the afore-mentioned Mr Murray, "doesn't go for the really expensive stuff. He picks a whisky that ordinary people can buy." He clearly knew his whiskies - he told me his personal favourite was Lagavulin, as he showed me to the corner of the store that displayed some of Scotland's finest exports. But I wasn't after Scotch in Manitoba. If I was going to buy or try any sort of whisky, it would be the local stuff.
Crown Royal is indeed a product of Manitoba. Whisky - in Canada, it's spelt without the 'e' - has been distilled in Gimli, on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, since 1939 (the brand was named in honour of that year's Royal visit, the first by a reigning sovereign). In Canada, whisky tends to mean a blend of barley, corn and rye, unlike in Scotland where they can only use malted barley. What makes the Northern Harvest Rye so special is that it's 90% rye.
For a Canadian whisky to be given such an accolade as World Whisky of the Year is unheard-of. Perhaps this is yet more evidence of how Canadians are gradually taking over the world!
As of yesterday morning, the Winnipeg Free Press was reporting that Northern Harvest Rye had sold out across the province, with no more expected in liquor stores until January; "Manitobans looking to get someone a bottle of the world's best whisky for Christmas are out of luck." If you can't get hold of a bottle in the province where it's made, what hope is there for the rest of the country?
Those who've tried it say that it's very good. I would like to be able to agree with them, but I just can't get hold of any.