Many people ask founder Karen Hoskin what she thinks about current conversations and debates within the world of rum. Right now is an unbelievably exciting time as rum is being recognized as a premium spirit—something Karen has been waiting for for 30 years. Rum is having its moment and deserves all the attention.
There has, of course, been some disagreement in the industry over the trajectory of Rum’s rise, at times breaking out into controversy between highly prominent people. There are so many opinions out there, many of them extremely strong and vocal. Here, Karen answers some of the questions she gets asked most frequently:
What’s your take on the general nature of the debates in premium rum?
Whenever people are talking about rum, that is an exciting thing for me. At the same time, I worry that the pendulum could swing almost too far in the other direction, making rum (the ultimate working class spirit) inaccessible to consumers. My goal is always to get people excited about rum first, whatever they like, and then to help them develop their discernment. But I would never say the rum they like is bad, even if I think it is. It takes time to cultivate your palate and I am just glad they are experimenting.
The debate that has been raging is about “what is premium rum?”, “how should we categorize (or not categorize rum) for the sake of consumers?”, and “how transparent should companies be about how much sugar they add to their rum?”
If someone is new to rum and wants to learn more without coming across as uninformed, what is the best way to get educated about premium rum?
Lately, I’m often inspired by the metaphor of a continuum. This metaphor works when talking about rum, craft spirits, life in general, and many of the topics that I care deeply about, including gender equality and sustainability.
Life is a continuum. When we enter a new arena or topic, we all step onto the continuum in different places. As we learn, our thinking evolves and we move along that continuum. There is no one who has simply “arrived” on day one. We often don’t realize we stepped onto a continuum until we look back and realize how much more evolved our information, perspective or opinion has become.
“Early on, I lived blissfully unaware that there was a continuum in the world of rum, that someone might be disparaging of my choice, or that my tastes might evolve.”
When I stepped onto the continuum of rum in 1989, I did so with Old Monk rum from India. Is it my favorite rum today? Not even close. But it was the first rum that got me excited about learning more and trying other rums. (And it happened to be the only rum on that shelf.)
If someone had told me that my palate was uncultured or un-evolved, or that Old Monk wasn’t an example of fantastic premium rum, I might have walked away and discarded the entire category. If I had been told that Old Monk was over-sweetened and over-colored, I may never have developed the 30-year love affair I have had with the spirit. With that first taste, all I knew was that I liked it. I lived blissfully unaware that there was a continuum in the world of rum, that someone might be disparaging of my choice, or that my tastes might evolve.
Now, 11 years into owning my own rum company, I am simply psyched when people step onto the continuum, wherever they start. The only thing I can say with absolute decisiveness is that in 5 years, they probably won’t like the same rums they like today, and 10 years from now, they may not like the same rums they liked at year five. Palates evolve. On occasion, we crave something new and different.
I have had so many experiences with rum over the last three decades, and everything has been moving along the continuum in that time period. Many of my favorite rums now weren’t even available 15 years ago.
So when it comes to fostering a love of rum, I recommend two things: If you’re in the industry, be careful how you talk to people. There is no right and wrong answer.
And if you’re new to rum and want to explore it, my best advice is to attend one of the rum festivals and congresses hosted by The Rum Lab in New York (June), San Francisco (September), Miami (February) or Chicago (April). Or sit down at the bar of one of the many beautiful rum bars in America like Smuggler’s Cove in San Francisco, Tonga Hut in Los Angeles, Lost Lake in Chicago, The Rum Club in New York City, etc. You’ll get a chance to taste some of the best premium rums in the world and sometimes hear from the people who make them. Talk to a bartender who has taken time to become informed, but then form your own opinions.
Don’t be afraid to make your own decisions about which ones you love. You won’t need to take someone else’s word as to what’s good. You’ll know what you like.
Who do you think is the best maker of rum?
I’m not a huge fan of superlatives like “Best Rum” or “Best Maker” unless they reference a specific award or competition won. I have my favorite longer-aged, molasses-based rum, and I have my favorite Agricole style rum. I have certain Demerara rums that I love, and certain light rums that I love. Don’t even get me started on funky Jamaican rum! There is no “best” in my rum world. There is the rum in your hand that makes you smile and excites your taste buds. It depends on what cocktail I am drinking. Lately I have been enjoying daiquiris with Wray and Nephew overproof. That is new for me.
Sometimes we choose “best makers” because we like them personally, or someone we respect thinks they are the best. Sadly, some of the loveliest rums are those you never hear of. They’re made by introverts or someone on a remote island who has no intention of making their products available to the world. Or maybe the maker doesn’t yet have the money to spread his or her story.
“I just want to make what I love, hold on to my integrity as Montanya Distillers grows, and aspire to be very good at what I do.”
There are also folks in the rum world that I don’t like very much. They diminish newcomers to the rum category in online forums or disparage the rum a person is excited about. They think what they love is the only good thing. Money can raise some voices above other really interesting ones. Sometimes the loudest voices are people who have never made a drop of rum in their lives. It’s a very complicated world—another reason I think these types of questions are too simple.
You don’t have to like someone’s rum in order to like them. There are so many wonderful makers of rum, and I feel honored to know and work with them. I may not love all of their rums, but that doesn’t mean the makers aren’t wonderful people.
As a result, I don’t vie to be personally popular in the world of rum. I just want to make what I love, hold on to my integrity as Montanya Distillers grows, and aspire to be very good at what I do. It can be soul crushing to try to be the “best” or even seen as one of the “greats.” Someone will always try to take you down.
Many people think that you and Maggie Campbell of Privateer Rum are female leaders in the American rum category. Do you see Maggie as your main competitor?
Not in a million years. Whenever Maggie Campbell talks about rum, she elevates the discussion. That has been so welcome.
I deeply appreciate what Maggie does as a distiller, and I also appreciate the rums she makes. Prior to Maggie’s tenure at Privateer, I was not a fan of the company’s rum. I think she has revolutionized these rums, and more power to CEO/COO Andrew Cabot for recognizing her talent, hiring her and investing in her.
Many people think that there can only be one woman leading rum and that they must pick and choose who is at the top. Again, so far from the truth. We are best when we support and elevate each other. Joy Spence and Lorena Vasquez were some of my first inspirations. Granted, they don’t deal with everything I deal with—they don’t have to run the company and pay the payroll, so we have very different jobs. But they both helped me to believe what I wanted to do was possible.
The truth is, Maggie and I make very different rums. We don’t use the same raw ingredients. People who prefer traditional, molasses-based rum are likely to prefer Privateer. I use the first press of the cane in its entirety, boiled once, including the natural 12% molasses. I add a tiny touch of caramelized Colorado honey; Maggie doesn’t. Maggie doesn’t barrel age her clear rums; I do.
We don’t do things the same way, and we don’t always agree. In a way, that is the hallmark of deep thinkers about rum (or any topic). We will probably never agree on every single point about the execution of business and making rum. I don’t find that to be an impediment to our strong collaboration and allegiance. We are both inspiring rum lovers and have inspired each other, and I hope we have many more great conversations.
If you’ve read this far, then we know you like rum as much as we do! For more, including Karen’s thoughts on the “Boys Club” of distilling, sweetened versus unsweetened rum and what Karen loves most about the world of rum, read Part II of the Continuum of Rum.