Meet the Maker: Paul Poutanen has chanelled his punk rock ethos into a career of gin distilling
SHELLEY BOETTCHER, SWERVE
Updated: June 1, 2018
Paul Poutanen with his Lovebird Gin. JIM WELLS / POSTMEDIA / SWERVE
The guy behind Alberta’s smallest distillery didn’t plan to be making gin. In fact, a couple of decades ago, you would have found Paul Poutanen onstage playing in the city’s punk clubs, or on the air at CJSW, the University of Calgary’s radio station.
Music has always played a big role in his life. Even now, as the owner of Tippa Inc., Poutanen listens to music as he works in his Okotoks-based distillery. “I’ve kept every record I’ve had since high school. I probably have at least 1,000 LPs,” he says. “And I’ve got a really wide range of musical taste, from classical to jazz.”
He may be all over the map when it comes to music, but when it comes to spirits, Poutanen has laser-beam focus: he’s all about gin, all day, every day. “I’ve always really liked gin, and it’s a hot spirit right now,” he says. “There are a lot of gin aficionados who always want to try the next great gin out there.”
That, he hopes, will be his first spirit, Tippa’s Lovebird Gin. It was released earlier this spring and is already widely available at Calgary bars, restaurants and shops. (A woodcut of lovebirds by Calgary artist Lisa Brawn is on the label.)
Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Ont., Poutanen grew up in a tightly knit Finnish-Canadian community and headed west after high school. The name Tippa is a nod to his roots; the word means “drop” in Finnish. “If you’ve ever been to a distillery, you’ve probably seen the product coming out of the still, drop by drop,” he says. “It’s a pretty slow process.”
The same is true of Poutanen’s journey to becoming a distiller. Long a part of the city’s high-tech scene, Poutanen worked at companies like WiLAN and Blister Entertainment, but three years ago, he was ready for a change. “The high-tech industry was getting tougher and tougher at that point, and I was getting just a little bit tired,” he says.
He decided to apply his start-up know-how to creating a distillery: find an affordable place, keep the budgets tight and staffing low. Really low. “I’m a one-man shop,” he says with a laugh. “I realized I could be quite efficient at doing the process myself.”
Best part about that: You don’t have to justify your decisions to anyone else.
Down side: You have to do all the work yourself, from the making to the marketing. It took 29 months to work through the red tape and get the first product into stores.
That’s partly why there’s no tasting room at the distillery: there’s no one to operate it. Nor does Poutanen plan to create one any time soon.
He hasn’t ruled out the idea of more products, however. This fall, he’ll launch a new product or two, perhaps rum, absinthe or another gin. He’s not quite ready to share the details, but he does admit that he’s been thinking about finding ways to combine music, tech and distilling. “It may be a bit gimmicky,” he says. “But you never know. It could be the next big thing.”