How to Make a Great Rum Cocktail
At Montanya Distillers, an uncanny number of reviews start with a simple phrase: “I don’t normally drink rum, but…”
Something about our cocktail menu transforms visitors from “never-evers” into rum lovers, and it’s pretty crazy when we step back and think about why.
For starters, we have nearly 40 cocktails, but only 4 different spirits—all of which are rum. And yet with that, we make the unexpected (like pulling out the blow torch to make the Smokeshow) and reimagine the classics. Like an Old Fashioned with rum instead of bourbon, or our take on a margarita, the Señorita, with (you guessed it) rum instead of tequila. Classic rum cocktails like the Ti’ Punch (try our Ti’ Exclusive) predated the Margarita.
We think the secret to our menu lies in a willingness to try new things. As our General Manager, Brandon Muller, says, “Whatever you can think of, we’ve probably tried it.”
But there are a few other keys to making a great Montanya Distillers cocktail as well:
As our Front of House Manager, Allysa McGill, has said, there are plenty of ingredients behind the bar at Montanya Distillers and “most of it is squeezy fresh.” We stock fresh produce like lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits—basil, mint, cilantro, strawberries, pineapple, agave, and coconut crème. We also have half and half, house-made cashew milk, coconut milk, and almond extract. Not to mention ten made-by-hand syrups, like kola nut and ginger, plus home-made infusions.
These ingredients make our cocktails look great and taste great too, but it’s not enough to make whatever’s on the season’s menu. Staff are encouraged to use those ingredients to come up with new recipes. Each week, a rotating specials board features two cocktails that aren’t on the menu, and a lot of them are new. “Karen [Hoskin, Owner] encourages us to be bold and creative and see what works and what doesn’t. Some of those drinks eventually make it on the menu,” Allysa says. In order to make the cut, they have to pass Karen’s evaluation of what makes a great cocktail: balanced, flavorful, fresh and surprising.
Using what you have on hand.
You know the saying: necessity is the mother of all invention. And when you use a lot of fresh ingredients, there comes a time when you need to use something up instead of letting it go to waste (at Montanya Distillers, that’s a true philosophy of ours).
Have a lot of strawberries? Concoct a recipe with strawberries. Leftover citrus? Also fair game. In fact, a recent special came to be because a staff member wanted to make use of a leftover orange, a lime and half a grapefruit. De-lish.
Remembering that inspiration is everywhere: even other bars.
They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery (and yep, we’re pulling out another idiom… What’s true for life generally holds true for distilling). Our bartenders often find new ideas when they travel and visit other bars, and we hope people do the same with us. The trick is figuring out how to recreate something with rum, and on occasion, how to incorporate a new element into the bar program.
Take smoke as an example. Brandon went out on the town in Philadelphia and saw a bartender make a drink with smoke. Inspired, he created the Smokey Greyhound—a Montanya Distillers twist on the Greyhound, replacing the vodka with rum and adding the unexpected with a little rosemary and smoke. He also created the Smokeshow, a deceptively simple cocktail that requires lighting cloves with a torch and letting the smoke fill the glass prior to filling.
Memorable cocktails are often found outside of your comfort zone.
When Brandon introduced the idea of making cocktails with a torch, the thought of whipping out fire on a jamming evening made a few folks understandably nervous. Now? It’s part of the routine, and it’s become something of a show for our customers.
“Every time the Smokeshow is made and people are sitting at the bar for the first time, it catches them off guard because they get all their senses: the smell, the sight of the smoke, the taste, the visual of the fire and it really wakes people up,” Brandon says. It’s a great reminder that, sometimes, new things can be uncomfortable but result in something memorable.
Great cocktails can come from great customers.
Without loyal customers, Montanya Distillers never would have gone from serving drinks in a small Colorado town to distributing worldwide in just ten years. That same loyalty has also led to some great cocktails. As Allysa says, it’s not uncommon for a customer to make a special request, encouraging bartenders to look at an old recipe with fresh eyes. Start with the request, change another ingredient or two, and voila! A new cocktail recipe is born.
Sometimes, you have to make a bad cocktail in order to create a good one.
We have to be honest: when creativity is encouraged and almost nothing is off limits, bad cocktails happen. Like some recent experiments with kimchi juice and roasted jalapeño rum—a play on a Bloody Mary that Brandon admits just wasn’t good. There was also the time that he and other staffers attempted a cocktail with pho broth (it’s a favorite on the food menu, so it might not be as strange as it sounds). “I’m not saying it’s impossible. We just couldn’t figure it out,” Brandon says.
Don’t abandon the tried and true.
By far the most popular cocktail on the menu at Montanya Distillers’ rum bar is the Maharaja. Karen created this cocktail (and many of the mainstays on the menu) over ten years of subtle tweaking to find the perfect balance between sweet and spicy, strong and bitter, familiar and surprising. The Maharaja has been a sought-after cocktail by regular customers for more than ten years now, and it shows no signs of losing its status as #1,
Whether a cocktail becomes a hit or a legend for how spectacularly it fails, the bottom line seems to be that creativity happens at Montanya Distillers because creativity is encouraged. One staff person referred to our bar at a “Harry Potter Laboratory for cocktail discovery.” The menu is not, as Allysa explained, set in stone. “It’s this living breathing company, which is cool because it’s just evolving. That’s really inspiring.”
What’s your secret to making a great cocktail? Or finding a new favorite drink? We’d love to know what keeps you inspired!