Wednesday, October 06, 2010


Oktoberfest is set to begin again, and with it our annual barrel race (Saturday, 10 am, Waterloo Public Square). This will be the first year we've had the barrel race since we lost our last barrels. The remaining ones were purely ceremonial, piled in a pyramid in front of the CIGI building (formerly the Seagram distillery) at Erb and Caroline. Last year City Hall said the pyramid was rotting and gave the barrels away. Now the spot is part of the new Balsillie School of International Affairs.

(A local theater group has started the Barrel Project to commemorate the barrel diaspora. "While the wooden slats and metal rings may be scattered all over the county, their memory remains..." I kid you not.)

All we have left of barrels is the name of the Barrel Yards development on Erb at Father David Bauer Drive. The Barrel Yards used to be the Canbar lands where whiskey barrels were made and stored. The land is soon to be a complex of apartments, office buildings, retail space and hotels... or at least it will be if reported water table issues can be resolved.

Canbar shut down in 1992, and I can clearly remember when barrels were part of the culture of Waterloo. When you drove down Erb you could see the barrels piled high.

The best part was that after Seagrams was done aging whiskey in them Canbar practically gave the barrels away. Cut in half, they were used in backyards all over town as planters.

If you got a fresh one it would still have whiskey soaked into the wood. When I was a grad student at UW, a popular party drink was called swish. We'd buy a barrel, add some water, let it sit a bit, swish it around, and voila - a large supply of half strength, nearly free, blecchy tasting whiskey.

My dad aged a batch of homemade peach wine in a Seagrams barrel once and brought the whole barrel out for a pig roast. The problem with the stuff was it was delicious and didn't taste nearly as lethal as it was. A large crowd of respectable people became completely blotto very rapidly. (I watched it all, completely sober, because that was my first day of work as a waitress at the Kent Hotel... once again, a story for another day.)

The distillery (and brewery) dominated Waterloo in other ways. All the time I was growing up in Waterloo, you could tell what day it was by the smell - and they were nice smells, or at least I thought so. Certain days of week we could smell the Seagrams distillery at Erb and Caroline, and other days we had the smell from the Labatt brewery (formerly Carling, and before that the Kuntz brewery) at King and William. Everyone had a different description of the smells: some days it was bread, molasses, oatmeal or Raisin Bran, and some days it was martinis.


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