Seventeen years ago, Thomas Steinhart was living in Halifax County and traveled to Antigonish for a family visit. After playing on the beach his relatives settled in for an afternoon of tanning and, always on the move, he took a drive along the coast. Heading west on the 245 he passed the Arisaig wharf and saw to his left a realtor sign partway in the ditch. Rising above it was an old farmhouse with a barn and some overgrown acreage.
He knew he had found home.
“I called the realtor on the spot, then I called my family and told them I think I’ve bought a farm. They said I was crazy. Even the realtor said I should wait for a house inspection,
but what I wanted was right there. I was buying the view.”
He shares this story from his front deck, with a birds-eye view of the wharf and sweeping panoramas of the Northumberland Strait that on clear days extend to Prince Edward Island. His property has undergone an evolution since 2000, and more is to come. “If you think the view is great here, it’s nothing compared to up there.” He gestures behind him to a large hill rising through the trees, its top cleared and waiting. That is where his dream home will be built, when the time is right.
His current home is a cottage, built slightly larger than the two vacation rentals next to it, and a reflection of the man and his world that transformed this once-idle farm into an internationally-honoured purveyor of unique vodka and gin. The design is compact yet expansive, comfortable for himself, partner Karen, three dogs – Chiquitita, a non-compact but loveable Burmese-St. Bernard mix plus the much-smaller Oreo and Ginger – and frequent guests. The living space and kitchen at the front embrace the view and the public with open arms. In back are the private bed and bath spaces. The cottages are built and finished in lumber milled from the lot on which they stand: ingenious design meets rustic form.
That is Thomas, too: German heritage, leading-edge vision, and no-nonsense intellect connecting the two with brilliant results. Steinhart Distillery turns organic and locally-sourced grains, fruits and spices (with a few imports such as citrus and coriander) into unique flavour blends like habanero vodka and blueberry gin that are now shipped direct all over the world and spreading into retail distributors across North America and overseas. Since releasing its first products in 2014, Steinhart Distillery has earned awards and honours for its quality spirits, the business and the individual behind it all. Following the 2017 Berlin International Spirits Competition where he was named Canadian Distiller of the Year, Thomas a few days later boarded a plane to London, where he would become the first Canadian member and first distiller in the Americas to be inducted into the British Gin Guild. Not bad for “you German,” as one unpleasant official retorted during the construction of his distillery. That disparaging comment, Thomas says, was an anomaly. From the time he closed the deal on his property, his neighbours and the communities along the shore and beyond have become great supporters in business and dear friends in life.
It was near the Black Forest of Germany, on his grandparents’ farm, where Thomas first learned the rigors of hard work and the delicate gift of a refined palette.
“With my grandfather it was feeding the pigs, picking fruit, whatever needed to be done.” That included distilling. “It’s part of working the farm. Here farmers cut lumber or fish, there they do distilling.” In this fertile environment of knowledge and culture, Thomas was introduced to the science and art of tuning grain into fine spirits. Harvesting the grain, fetching wood for the fire and other manual labour eventually led to the privilege of being able to smell and taste the products as nature and science worked its intricate charms.
“Me, I wanted to be playing, riding my bike, but ‘Pay attention!’,” he frowns in dramatic seriousness, his voice mimicking a rough rendition of elderly tough love. Then his near-smile returns. “I heard ‘Pay attention!’ a lot.”
Other times, he was in the kitchen with his grandmother, where amid her schnitzels and spaetzle – a German pasta – his tastebuds awakened. He leans forward with the lesson shared. “There are four taste centres on the tongue: salty, butter, sweet and sour. If you don’t activate them all, the flavours just don’t balance.” In tandem, he learned respect for fresh and local ingredients that combined with care would lead to a moment of heaven on the palette and in the room. Humans are sensory beings, he learned, embracing experiences that delight and challenge.
As a young man, his search for challenge led him to credentials as a millwright and mechanical engineer. He built things and fixed things, often very large things requiring both courage for climbing as well as technical know-how. In the early 1990s his work brought him to Halifax for a meeting: the friendliness of strangers and gentler pace of life encouraged him to stay. In 2000, after that fateful drive, he made Arisaig his home.
In his early days ‘on the farm,’ he travelled often for work, to the industrial areas of Cape Breton, Alberta, and points in between. For a time, he ran Lismore Variety. He maintained a small mixed farm, with assorted livestock and a mobile sawmill that could turn trees harvested from his expansive woodlot into lumber or logs. “I built a couple of log homes,” he adds. Really? How did he learn to do that? “I don’t know.” He pauses. “I don’t watch a lot of TV. I’m always reading something.”
His work schedule was flexible by choice. “If I needed money, I would put out the word that I was available.” He sweeps his arms across the panoramic view. “Life is about this. It’s getting up on a Monday morning and saying, I don’t want to go to work today. Let’s go fishing, and a bunch of guys are willing to do that. It’s driving by someone’s house, seeing a few cars in the yard and stopping in to see what’s going on. ‘Yeah, it’s a bit of a party,’ you’re told, ‘come stay for supper.’ That’s what I love.”
He was in Cape Breton’s industrial region atop a giant crane in 2007, when his phone rang. “Your house is on fire,” a neighbour told him. Thomas could barely hear him, and what he thought he heard was a joke. “There was a song called ‘Your House is on Fire,’ so I sang the rest of the verse and hung up.” His phone rang again. Another neighbour. No joke.
Thomas raced home, literally, but by the time he arrived, his farmhouse had been reduced to ash. Even the antique kitchen stove was gone, melted in the blaze. There was little time to mourn. He took work out west, for the moment trading lifestyle for salary. Five years later, in 2012, he was ready to start the next incarnation of his vision. He built the three cabins, then the distillery, yet another reflection of its owner’s intricate blend of Old World knowledge, modern imagination and business acumen, or what Thomas simply calls “common sense.”
Atop concrete floors, nested by steel walls and fronted by a glassed view of the Strait, the visitor area is where customer meets spirits, and industrial meets hometown kitchen party that is already a hit, while still getting warmed up. A vintage woodburning range, rescued from a barn and de-rusted with a bottle of Coca-cola, is perched to the left of the entrance, bearing a subtle display of dried flowers, a candle, and a wood carving cradling two bottles of choice Steinhart spirits. On the right is an electric fireplace, a wood-carved sign above the mantle urging: “You only get one life, so if you’re going to go for something, go all in. And if it’s not fun, don’t do it.” Thomas’s sense of humour and fun also abound. “Rappers won’t sing about us and that’s okay,” chirps a message on the chalkboard above the bar. “We’re about quality. Not ego.”
After time at the bar enjoying samplers or a variety of cocktails, those seeking facilities will find not a washroom but a ‘vodka and gin relief centre.’ Above the neat rows of bottles for sale gleam a line of hammered miniature copper stills. Those are for the ‘ginstitutes’, where students spend a weekend brewing their own spirits. In the distillery room, the full-sized stills and state-of-the-art equipment shine, in presence and in the spirits they produce, with the human touch ensuring quality at every step from distilling through shipping. Visitors dropping by any time of year can purchase a tour, a tasting, or a combination.
Warmth and depth of conversation the owner offers free of charge, available whenever he isn’t on the road or taking a bit of time for himself. During those times, he may be in the woods behind the distillery, deep in a valley where cell service doesn’t reach, where he can hike, sit, or cook in the company of a nearby brook and the rustling leaves. Or, he may be on the water in the lobster boat he co-captains with Karen (she bought it, he maintains it), cruising the smooth waves of Arisaig Harbour. At home, he unwinds in the kitchen by making pasta from scratch, baking bread, and otherwise “making a mess,” but to family and friends enjoying his hospitality, the food is a gourmet delight. “I’m asked for the recipes but there are none. I just look in the fridge and put things together. I do want to write a cookbook some day,” he adds, with that serious half-smile. “I’d call it the F@#*-It Cookbook. Just say f@#* it and put some things together and have fun with it.”