The History

The Cooperage is located on the former site of Canada Barrels and Kegs (Canbar). Canbar first opened its doors in 1872, producing the barrels used to age the Seagram Distillery’s famous whiskey. Barrel-making, or cooperage, is an art form that requires the craftsmanship of highly trained coopers to create perfect barrels that age premium whiskey. Coopering was an apprenticed trade requiring many years of training and practice and was a very well-paid, respected livelihood.

After 1973, Canbar was relocated to Breslau, Ontario. Canbar is still in operation in Campbellville, Ontario, where it manufactures a number of products, including woodstave tanks and pipes.

Barrels are made by following a meticulous process. Coopers transform carefully selected oak staves by artfully splitting, hollowing and tapering them to form the walls of the barrel. Steel hoops are then fitted to hold the panels tightly together, making the barrels leak-proof. The unique flavour of Canadian whiskey comes from the oak used and the process of charring the interior to open the wood’s pores, allowing the whiskey to interact more easily with the wood. A perfectly charred and crafted oak barrel imparts many desirable flavours, such as vanilla and caramel onto the aging whiskey. The oak barrel is so imperative to creating the flavour profile of whiskey that it is considered the third ingredient in its recipe, next to water and the type of grain used. Canadian whiskey must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of three years.

Glossary

Croze: the groove near either end of a barrel stave in which the barrelhead is inserted.
Chime: the extensions of the staves beyond the head of the barrel secured with a chime hoop.
Hand Adzes: a primary tool of the cooper, used for smoothing or carving wood in hand woodworking, similar to an axe but with the head mounted perpendicular to the handle.
Barrel: any wooden vessel of any capacity having bent sides and flat ends.
Barrelhead: the round, flat sections that form the top and bottom of a barrel.
Bilge: the center of the barrel where it is largest in diameter.
Charring: the effect of continually heating the inside of the barrel over an open fire. It usually causes browning, or even blackening of the inside surface of the stave and opens the pores of the wood to allow it to more easily interact with the whiskey aging inside.
Cooper: a skilled crafts person who has learned the trade of barrel making through an apprenticeship or formal cooperage program.
Cooperage: the production facility where the barrels are made.
Firkin: a measurement of 40.91 litres of spirits.

Hogshead: a measurement of volume of a barrel that totals 238.7 litres of spirits.
Hoops: the strips of metal or chestnut wood which hold the barrel together.
Hoop Driver: the tool used, along with a hammer, to force down the hoops to make the barrel tight.
Kilderkin: a measure equal to half a barrel or two firkins or 81.82L.
Oak: the preferred variety of wood used to build barrels for aging spirits. It is a strong, dense wood with a high tannin content that imparts flavours such as vanilla and caramel onto aging spirits.
Pin: a measure equal to half a firkin or 20L
Spigot: a device that controls the flow of liquid from a large container.
Staves: the pieces of wood used to form the sides of a barrel or a tank.
Tun: a barrel that is double the size of a butt and has a capacity 982L.
Warehouse: where barrels of whisky are stored to mature. Traditional warehouses had earth floors and stone walls and barrels were stacked no more than three high. Modern or racked warehouses are storage facilities with temperature and humidity control where barrels can be stacked on racks up to twelve high.

Thank you to the Waterloo and Kitchener Public Libraries, and Karen Ball-Pyatt for their contributions and assistance to the historical accuracy of the information above. Thank you also to the City of Waterloo Museum for the invaluable access to their Seagram Archives.