Sailor’s Reserve: The Story of HMCS Winnipeg’s Whisky

Petty Officer Blair Black

Petty Officer Blair Black poses with the precious cargo. Photo: supplied

Capt Christine MacNeil, 
HMCS Winnipeg PAO

Up in the fo’c’sle, among the hawsers, the capstan compartment, fenders, paint stores and other nautical items is something unusual.

Something rarely found on a Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) vessel – a sealed whisky barrel. Full of single malt whisky from a distillery in Vernon, this barrel has been a silent passenger during HMCS Winnipeg’s six-month deployment on Exercise Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) and Operation Projection.

This project is the brainchild of Petty Officer Second Class (PO2) Blair Black, the Warehouse Supervisor on HMCS Winnipeg.

Several years ago, PO2 Black sampled a bottle of Jefferson’s Bourbon called ‘Aged at Sea’. Enjoying the taste and intrigued by the name, he looked into the story behind the name and discovered that Jefferson’s had loaded whiskey barrels onto the ocean research vessel MV Ocearch, and the barrels travelled around the world while the ship’s company conducted research. According to Jefferson’s website, ‘the constant movement of the ocean and extreme temperature fluctuations as the ship traversed the globe completely transformed the whiskey’.

Posted ashore at the time, PO2 Black could only think about what a neat idea it would be to have an RCN ship do something similar. As fate would have it, PO2 Black was posted aboard HMCS Winnipeg in 2022, where he floated the idea of aging whisky at sea to the ship’s fund committee. The idea was met with enthusiasm, and the team went to work exploring the possibility and the requirements to make it happen.

Lieutenant (Navy) Travis Jensen, the ship’s Logistics Officer, liaised with Fleet Non-Public Funds (NPF) staff, who then verified with Formation Logistics Staff to determine if this was possible within the confines of the system (it is). PO2 Black reached out to several B.C. distilleries to determine interest and legal requirements to make it happen.

With all their ducks in a row and the Commanding Officer’s approval, PO2 Black, through the ship’s NPF Exchange, purchased a barrel of single-malt whisky from a Vernon distillery. He picked it up the week before the ship left on deployment and had it loaded and secured in the fo’c’sle. Just before pick-up, the single malt was transferred to a fresh Martinique Ex-Rhum barrel, which harkens back to the naval tradition of having rum barrels on board from which to issue a daily spirit to the ship’s company. Over the next six months, it was expected that ‘the constant motion of the churning sea would increase the contact of the spirit with the wood barrel. The salinity of the sea air, along with frequent temperature and barometric pressure changes, would also certainly have an impact on the outcome of the whisky’.

With HMCS Winnipeg back alongside, the whisky barrel was returned to the distillery in Vernon, where our own ‘sea-aged’ whisky will be bottled. The bottles will carry a unique label designed by Sailor First Class Sivanujan Sathananthan, and its unique name is Sailor’s Reserve. Every sailor on the ship will have the opportunity to buy a bottle – a one-of-a-kind memento, reminding us of our trip and our favourite stowaway in the fo’c’sle.

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