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Seeing Almonte's Dairy Distillery through a pandemic keeps life interesting for Omid McDonald

The entrepreneur's problem-solving itch has taken him from Paris to Brooklyn to Ottawa and Almonte.

Omid McDonald loves to solve problems, especially the kind entrepreneurs face when trying to work out new business ideas.

Before the 48-year-old Ottawa native launched his distillery Dairy Distillery in Almonte in 2018, he had to solve one very big problem: How do you make alcohol out of milk?

A self-professed “serial entrepreneur”, in 2017, McDonald was experimenting with distilling alcohol using potatoes and maple syrup in his basement with little success. Then, one day, he heard that the province had a surplus of milk and didn't know what to do with it. Putting two and two together, it dawned on him that, being water and sugar, milk might be ideal for making alcohol.

Apparently, 13th-century Indo warlord Genghis Khan was fond of fermented mare's milk in his day. If it was good enough for Genghis Khan, McDonald thought, it's good enough for me.

So he commissioned University of Ottawa professor Alexandre Poulain to create a method of distilling alcohol out of milk permeates (the lactose sugars left over after the cream and the proteins have been removed to make butter and cheeses).

In short order, McDonald had his recipe and was building a state-of-the-art micro distillery in Almonte for his artisanal vodka Vodkow.

Lactose and gluten free, his line of flavoured Vodkow vodkas and Vodkow cream liqueurs is now marketed through the LCBO and Dairy Distillery's website.

McDonald then applied his problem-solving skills in 2020, when the COVID pandemic created an urgent need for antiseptics. He pivoted his distillery, started manufacturing Dairy Distillery Hand Sanitizer for hospitals and domestic use.

McDonald's ingenuity and passion for solving problems began early, while still a boy watching Star Trek where his favourite character was Scotty the engineer.

“He was the guy who kept the ship going. He was good at digging into problems and solving problems, which is what you need to run a startup business. It's a process of solving problems and bringing solutions to the market.”

A software engineer, home-builder, startup entrepreneur and now alchemist, making vodka out of milk by-products, he's been channeling his inner Scotty ever since.

While an engineering student at the University of Ottawa in 1995, he worked on a team that created the software for an ultrasound for the heart.

In 2002, he wrote the software to put a phonebook on a cellphone SIM card. A French telecom bought it and moved McDonald to Paris for three years.

By the time he moved back to Ottawa in 2005, he'd made enough money to build a home at Britannia Beach for he, his wife Sonja and his young family.

In the meantime, he was looking for his next challenge.

In 2010, it was off to Brooklyn, with a new engineering project, audio remix software for DJs which turned out to be a catastrophe. McDonald lost $300,000 in the venture. It's the only time McDonald's fallen flat on his face, but he has no regrets.

“I don't like settling down. I like beginning things. Early in my career, I'd build an idea, get it up on its legs and then leave after five years. But now that I'm getting older, working on the distillery suits me long-term. Software is high turnover, alcohol lasts for years," says McDonald.

“Success is important but it's more important to do interesting things, have an interesting life. I want to be the person with the best stories at the end, not the one with the most money."

McDonald's best advice to young entrepreneurs?

“Running a startup can be a harrowing experience. There are a lot of risks. But it's also exciting, challenging finding solutions to problems. Don't be afraid. Work hard and have fun. We live in Canada. What's the worst that can happen? You're not going to starve. See the world. Live. That's my idea of success.”

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