“Working with Big Rock I was exposed to the brave new world of craft and artisanal, though we didn’t call it that then as those words weren’t invented yet,” says Martin Gunson, Eau Claire Distillery’s Vice President of Sales.
Gunson was born in Stettler, and spent his formative years in Alberta, with a spell in Toronto, before moving to Edmonton in his teens. After school, he studied economics and political science at university, and then took a year off to travel around Europe, where he gained an appreciation for beer and wine, and a fondness for flavour.
When he returned in 1989 Big Rock was just starting up, and Gunson took the opportunity to work there with David Farran (founder of Eau Claire Distillery), and Larry Kerwin, who has been in brewing and distillation for 30- 40 years.
“It was a learning curve, and very entrepreneurial,” he says. “Ed McNally, who founded Big Rock, was a pioneer in this industry, and was great to work for –with his way of less administration (and) just pull up your boot straps and go and do it.”
1995 started an eventful few years; after putting Big Rock on the map in Edmonton, Gunson moved to Toronto to open up the market there, then a couple of years later moved to Vancouver, working in Seattle and Oregon too. After three years, he returned to Calgary, a spell with Sleeman Brewery, and then with a small craft brewery in Creemore, Ontario. “
That’s a neat story,” Gunson laughs. “The owner would interview you to see if you were worthy of his beer, and there was a waiting list for Creemore Springs at the time.”
The company bought Granville Island brewery, and Gunson managed a team across the prairies, but after seven years they were packaged out. As fate would have it, it was at the time Eau Claire Distillery started.
“I roamed the streets with an empty bottle, then a full bottle, then after about four weeks I was legally allowed to sell it,” he says. “As the first new distillery, we were the guinea pig and helped the AGLC with all the procedural forms and crossing of t’s and dotting of i’s.”
An advocate for Alberta and Alberta products for 27 years, Gunson is very happy to see the tide of awareness, and proliferation of craft breweries and distilleries that have opened in Alberta in the last few years.
So what is Gunson’s special bottle?
“As I worked for Big Rock, I thought I’d only be completing the circle if I chose the Big Rock Barrel Aged Edition,” he explains.
“I spent 13 years at Big Rock, and I hope to spend at least the next 10 years working for Eau Claire,” Gunson adds. “I started my career in beer and I’m presently in distillation, and the tie is, of course, bourbon barrels. They made this beer in bourbon barrels and we’re aging our single malt in bourbon barrels. To me it just comes full circle, the entrepreneurial spirit of Ed (McNally) and now people like David and Larry at the distillery with that maverick spirit.”
And when will Gunson open the bottle?
Gunson’s son is traveling in Europe at the moment, and expected back in a few weeks.
“I’m a fan of sharing a beer, so this would probably be shared with my son when he gets back,” he says. “So I will wait or – no pun intended – when the spirit takes me, or maybe if the Flames win the Stanley Cup, I’ll open it then,” he laughs. “I’m not too sentimental about when I open it, but when I do, it’s going to be poured into the right glass and enjoyed.”