Peter McAuslan with the distillery tower at Oshlag Brewery & Distillery in Montreal on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. He says Holy Smoke! is not your grandfather’s gin. Allen McInnis
Deep in the heart of the city’s east end, there exists a series of rambling, oddly shaped, nondescript warehouses all connected to one another. Through the back door of one, sharing space with a boxing club, is Oshlag Brewery & Distillery, where a jolly giant of a figure can be found amidst a maze of stainless steel vats and wooden kegs. He is set to sip his latest creation: Peter McAuslan’s Holy Smoke! new-age gin.
The only thing missing from this picture is the image of a grinning mad scientist sporting a white smock and goggles while stirring his hooch in a bathtub-like still.
McAuslan is a Montreal original. A one-time CEGEP bureaucrat, he morphed into a beer baron in 1988, creating his award-winning St-Ambroise pale ale in a St-Henri brewery that bears his name. His microbrewery was to mushroom into a multimillion-dollar business, before he sold it five years ago. But ever the adventurer, McAuslan decided to turn his attention to potent new directions in alcohol — gin and his soon-to-be-released rye.
Along with 98 others earlier this summer, McAuslan was named to the Order of Canada. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Order of Canada, McAuslan got to hobnob with newly minted and past recipients of the award at a Rideau Hall reception in Ottawa last weekend.
“I was in such awe of so many of the people there,” McAuslan said. “They have accomplished so much and done so much for others over their careers, and here I am: just a regular guy who brewed beer. So I kept asking myself: ‘How did I get here?’ ”
Typical self-deprecation from McAuslan, but it wasn’t only his brew skills and entrepreneurial craftsmanship in the field that netted him the Order of Canada. Over the years, McAuslan has also been a godsend to the local cultural scene with sizeable donations to the Montreal Fringe Festival and POP Montreal, among a host of other events much in need of this largesse. McAuslan, whose family roots in Montreal go back to 1856, has also been rightfully credited for the revitalization of St-Henri.
McAuslan, 71 going on 41, has always been at the cutting edge. He pointed out that his Holy Smoke! is not your granddaddy’s gin. At 86 per cent proof, it could have smoke rings coming out of the ears of some sippers. Which is why he also offers a recipe for an enticing mix featuring elderflower syrup, lime and Fentimans or Fever-Tree tonic water.
Only problem now is finding the gin. The 173 cases of the finished product, a year in the making, were quickly sold out, so fanciers will have to wait until a new batch emerges shortly. Nor will McAuslan’s rye, fermenting in the kegs, be ready for consumption until 2020.
For all his love of beer and all types of booze, the soft-spoken McAuslan is a most moderate fellow himself, not given to public displays of tipsiness or barroom tirades.
Peter McAuslan holds up a bottle of his Holy Smoke! new age gin at a warehouse where his whiskey is aged in Montreal on Aug. 30, 2017.
Even the origins of Holy Smoke! relate more to matters non-secular than a rousing gin joint.
“One of the first people to taste the gin told me it tasted ‘quite churchy.’ That’s because it contains frankincense and myrrh,” McAuslan said. “First I thought of calling it The Wise Men, then the Epiphany. But that was too serious. Then Holy Smoke! came to me — which in a sense reflects my career as well.”
Curiously, McAuslan had initially contemplated only coming up with a different recipe for rye whiskey, but Ellen Bounsall, his wife and former partner and brewer at McAuslan Brewing, suggested going into gin.
McAuslan then hooked up with Jean-François Théorêt, Oshlag’s chief operating officer and distiller, in the making of the specialty gin and rye. Théorêt, who has a degree in malting, brewing and distilling from a university in Scotland, had been a brewer at McAuslan Brewing.
“He’s the brains behind the business. He’s got competencies that go well beyond my own. I’m just the recipe maker, brand owner and taster,” McAuslan quipped.
“He’s much more than that,” Théorêt interjected. “Having worked with Peter for years at his brewery, I can attest to the fact that, in addition to all the help he provided to arts groups throughout the city, he was also very involved in the St-Henri community, whether hiring local people or volunteering for all kinds of local events.
“Peter is not just a role model for me business-wise, but also in a community-conscious way. His philosophy is not making money for the sake of making money, but doing so to better the world.”
“It’s a no-brainer,” McAuslan said. “It just makes so much sense to constantly reinvest in the community. You’re not just there to take things out. It’s always a two-way street.”
Talk about an unorthodox and unusual career arc. McAuslan had been an administrator at Dawson College’s admissions office before being elevated to the position of secretary general at the CEGEP.
But after 13 years at Dawson, he decided on a career change.
“I had been making beer since I was a teenager. We had a beer club, and people kept drinking it, saying that they liked it. I always thought it was kind of second-rate myself. They probably liked it because it was free. Regardless, I decided to give it a go again.”
Smart move. McAuslan improved his beer recipe and became a pioneer on the microbrewery front in Quebec and Canada. And what started with one beer and a staff of four grew into a massive business with a variety of brews and a staff of 50.
McAuslan sold the business after a 25-year run, but he was far from ready to retire.
“Before selling the brewery, I incorporated a company called McAuslan Malting and Distilling, with an eye to the future. I thought it would be kind of fun to make a whiskey one day. Its history has always fascinated me. Then came the gin. Now I still have malting to check off the list.
“My accountant always told me that one has to have a certain amount of investments in liquid funds — and no one can deny that what I have is not highly liquid.”
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