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A Canadian Museum That Has the Spirits

June 01, 1986|NANCY HOYT BELCHER | Belcher is a South Pasadena free-lance writer.

WATERLOO, Canada — Even though my Toronto hosts ran on with enthusiasm about this city's newest attraction, I was skeptical. The Seagram Museum? What could be interesting about a whiskey museum?

For starters, the Seagram is not just a repository for decrepit machinery and dusty old whiskey bottles, but a smashingly beautiful museum devoted to the technology and history of wine and spirits, as well as its associated industries such as glass making and advertising.

A few highlights: more than 2,000 major display pieces ranging from a 35-foot-high gleaming copper spirits still to a lovingly restored 1919 Pierce-Arrow delivery truck (valued at about $30,000); a potpourri of fascinating historical tidbits (wine was first fermented at least as long ago as 4,000 BC); a dozen mini-theaters with entertaining video films about everything from 17th-Century barrel making to the history of champagne, and an attractive garden-like restaurant serving superb lunches and dinners.

Skillfully integrate all this into an airy, spacious 37,000-square-foot building and you have the makings of a fine specialty museum.

Seagram Grant

Even though it's named the Seagram Museum after the company that funded it with a one-time capital grant, it is set up as a nonprofit, charitable foundation separate from the distillery firm. It is Canada's first industrial museum.

The $5-million undertaking opened in May, 1984, at the site where Joseph E. Seagram Co. was founded in 1857.

The focal point is the original 7,000-square-foot distillery warehouse built in 1868. Outfitted with new blue-shuttered windows and sandblasted to its original yellow brick walls, the building faces a towering pyramid of oaken barrels in the center of the entrance courtyard.

Once used to store up to 6,000 barrels of whiskey on 16 levels of racks reached by catwalks, the warehouse now houses the Spirits restaurant, a gift shop, liquor store and the reception area. Along the walls, a forest of red pine pillars with storage racks soars 50 feet to the ceiling, supporting about 400 aesthetically placed white oak whiskey barrels.

Adjoining the old warehouse is the new arena-like exhibition area, dominated by the Pierce-Arrow and the spirits still that reaches nearly to the 45-foot skylighted ceiling. Five randomly placed pavilions fan off from there, one holding a small theater that shows a 15-minute multi-media video orientation about the museum, the best place to start a visit.

All of the artifacts have been painstakingly restored to their original condition. One 1900 brandy still, rescued from a field in Bordeaux, took 1,000 hours of meticulous labor to restore to its former mirrored copper finish.

The pavilions are devoted to Scotch and North American whiskies, wines and champagnes, liqueurs, and rum and gin.

How Bottles Are Made

Scattered about are the small mini-theaters (with seats crafted from barrels and topped with rich maroon padded cushions) showing video films. One of the best shows how bottles are made; at times the graceful movements of the new containers resemble a carefully choreographed ballet performed by lines of sparkling glass bottles.

Interspersed throughout, one can see anything or learn everything about imbibing--who, what, where, when and how.

Some monumental pieces dominate: a 1900 Italian grape stemmer-crusher; an 1880 French grape scale; huge wine presses nearly 200 years old from California and Italy; a Scotch still from Scotland; a French dosing machine (a tricky device that holds bottles in place while they are filled with champagne and sugar); a display of wine bottles spanning two centuries; a wooden-wheeled water truck, used for fire prevention in the Louisville, Ky., distillery, meticulously restored by Waterloo fire fighters.

The cork exhibit (with a mini-movie about its history and how it's made) features an intriguing display of 102 corkscrews from a 200-year period, each numbered and identified as to type and year. A lot of corkscrews, but really only a small sampling, considering more than 1,100 corkscrew patents were issued in the United States and Great Britain in only one year during the 1800s.

'I Am Drinking Stars'

A complete 1890 champagne bottling process line from a European winery is restored and set up in its own cellar. Featured in the champagne exhibit is a plaque bearing the wondrous exclamation by the Benedictine monk when he serendipitously discovered the sparkling wine 200 years ago: "I am drinking stars."

His name, unmentioned on the plaque, was Dom Perignon, who should be the patron saint of bubbly fanciers. One wonders if he is uncredited because the champagne carrying his name is not only one of the world's finest but a competitor with one marketed by Seagram. But this is a minor quibble about an otherwise fairly objective museum.

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