Karen Hoskins, founder of Montanya Distillers.

by Courtney Llewellyn

“When I was just starting to drink, I discovered I couldn’t drink beer, or tequila, or vodka. I had this whole experience of what I couldn’t drink,” Karen Hoskin recalled, laughing. “And then I’m in India, and I’m on the beach and I’m bummed because I’m living with this Hindu family and they don’t drink at all. I had a bartender put some rum in front of me and I thought ‘Yes, more of that.’”

And so began Hoskin’s deep dive into the world of rum.

Hoskin is the co-founder and co-owner of Montanya Distillers, alongside her husband Brice. She is also the company’s CEO. Located high in the mountains in Crested Butte, CO, almost 9,000 feet above sea level – about as far from India and the sugar cane needed for rum as one can get – is their distillery, bar and restaurant. Hoskin is adamant the altitude positively affects the fermenting, distilling and aging of the rum. It must have some benefits, as today Montanya produces more than 52,000 bottles a year, selling their rum in 42 states and across seven countries.

Over 30 years of drinking rum, Hoskin said she’s really come to love the spirit – and that was the impetus for starting her own distillery.

“I meandered down the path to this,” she explained. “I started as a bartender before managing some bars. I saw the craft brewery movement coming up in 1991, and I was broke and free, but I couldn’t see giving up the next 10 years of my life on that. It wasn’t until 2008 that the idea circled back. Everything that happened with beer had already happened. Coming to the spirits world I thought ‘I can’t miss this train.’”

She and her husband founded Montanya in Silverton, CO, in 2008 in a 100-year-old, 800 square foot building. By the summer of 2011, they relocated to a much larger home in Crested Butte. They now have a 2,800 square foot distilling facility and tasting room and a 3,000 square foot barrelhouse.

“Our vision as a company is to be the most highly-respected and well-loved American rum available. We intend to stay true to our craft distilling values as we grow. We are also changing how Americans view rum cocktails by introducing new artisan cocktails in our tasting rooms every week all year round,” Hoskin states on the company’s website.

She trained herself how to distill. “Most distillers are ‘frontier-trained,’” she said. “It’s not rocket science. It’s kind of like being a baker, focusing on the elemental components. You do need a good attention span.”

Making rum the American way

The main ingredient in rum is water. It makes up 85 percent of the fermented wash and 60 percent of the final product. Rum leaves the copper stills of Montanya at about 140 proof and is blended with water before being bottled at 80 proof. The water in Crested Butte is crisp, clean snowmelt and spring water that charges an aquifer 350 feet below the town, and this water percolates through flavorful minerals that give the water source a perfect pH for bottling, according to Hoskin.

Water isn’t the only ingredient, though. “Ten years ago no one was making the rum I wanted to drink. I wanted to create something that reflected my commitment to really knowing what I eat and drink,” Hoskin said. “It’s great to see the conversation in the rum world about additives. People who are used to the mass produced stuff said my rum was too dry. I had to get used to that. Now people are talking about simpler ingredients.”

Originally, Montanya was getting its sugar cane from Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company, but Hoskin wanted to make sure the distillery was 100 percent American. She explained that once sugar cane enters the commodity market, they couldn’t certify it was entirely grown in America. “I put out the call in all directions and focused on Louisiana – and the craziest thing happened. I had a woman walk into the distillery and it turned out her family were sugar cane growers,” Hoskin said. “She was born in Crested Butte, married a man from Louisiana and then connected me with co-op there. I met the people who run the co-op and the mill and was able to watch the entire process from the harvest onward. I immediately switched to them for our supply.”

Montanya currently produces four rums: Platino, Oro, Exclusiva and Aniversaria. The first two, Platino and Oro (platinum and gold) are the distillery’s barrel-aged staples. The Oro is aged in an American white oak barrel that previously held Laws Colorado Whiskey, going into the barrel while it is still wet from the whiskey to pick up more of the flavor from the oak. It also has a small amount of local honey added at bottling time. The Platino is aged for one year in the barrels that previously held the Oro, then filtered through a coconut husk charcoal filter to remove color but retain natural flavor. The Platino won “Best White Rum” at the World Rum Awards in the UK in 2015.

The Exclusiva is a limited release available only in Colorado. It spends two and a half years in the white oak whiskey barrels and another six months in French oak barrels that once held Sutcliffe Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon and port. Aniversaria was just released last year to celebrate the distillery’s 10th anniversary and is available only in the tasting room. This specialty spends three and a half years in a whiskey barrel, four months in a wine barrel and then finished for several months in a white oak barrel that held Peach Street Bourbon. A portion of the proceeds are donated to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

The distillery was recently nominated for 10Best Readers’ Choice Travel Awards for Best Craft Rum Distillery, was featured on the Travel Channel website and in August 2018, Forbes wrote a story about them.

“We are growing a lot every year. It’s really intense,” Hoskin said. “With aged spirits you can’t take a reverie and put your hands in your pockets. You have to invest in the future.”

The crew at Montanya Distillers bottles their rum — Platino, Oro, Exclusivo and Aniversaria — every Tuesday at their Crested Butte, CO, location.
Photos courtesy of Montanya Distillers

The ‘green’ rum of the future

Time spent aging quality rum isn’t the only investment Montanya is making. From the beginning of the venture, investing in the future health of the planet has been a goal of the distillery.

The business is 100 percent wind-powered; the tasting room is heated by recycled heat that comes from the stills.

Even trucking the sugar cane from Louisiana to Colorado is considered. Hoskin explained she uses TerraPass to keep track of every mile traveled. TerraPass allows individuals and companies to buy carbon offsets to balance their carbon emissions, which include solar and forestry projects. “We want to take more carbon out of the environment than we put in,” Hoskin said.

Additionally, in November, Montanya Distillers was certified as a B Corporation, highlighting the distillery’s commitment to social and environmental sustainability. Montanya received a score of 119 from B Lab, a non-profit that certifies and supports B Corporations. Montanya’s score is currently 32 percent higher than other distilleries on the list.

“This means we meet the highest and most rigorously assessed standards for environmental, social and community practices,” Hoskin explained. “We are the first distillery in Colorado and only the third in the nation to earn this coveted certification. It is one thing to say you operate a sustainable, environmentally responsible distillery. It is another thing to have B Lab verify your claims in such a rigorous way.”

B Lab reviews and verifies indicators such as the sourcing of ingredients, energy efficiency practices, trash and waste, non-GMO claims, employee benefits, community donations, diversity hiring practices, carbon emissions mitigation and more to certify businesses.

Partnerships in the pub

In March 2018, Hoskin founded the Women’s Distillery Guild, an organization for female distillers to connect and collaborate. A few months later, the guild officially announced a partnership with the established Women of the Vine & Spirits group to further expand their reach.

“We will become a single association dedicated to the mentorship, training, support, empowerment and advocacy for women in the alcoholic beverage industry,” Hoskin stated. “Think scholarships, women-owned certification program, webinars, global symposia, career pathing, entrepreneurship education, diversity and inclusion advocacy – all specialized for craft women distillery owners, distillers and staff.”

Hoskin also travels – a lot – to share her experiences and her wisdom with others in the industry and up-and-comers. In the past six months, she’s participated in the New York Rum Festival, the California Rum Festival, the Gold Coast Rum Symposium and the Women’s Impact Investing Forum in New York City. Come February, she’ll be one of the guest speakers at the inaugural Miami Rum Congress.

“There’s always a lot to do on every front,” she said. “Our next phase is always expanding.”