This is the second installment of a Q&A with Montanya Distillers founder Karen Hoskin on the current hot topics in the world of premium rum. Read Part I here.
Do you think the alcohol beverage and rum industries are “boys clubs”?
All you have to do is follow me around for one day and you will know that this is still very true.
When I started my distillery 11 years ago, rum felt much more welcoming than other spirits. But in truth, all craft spirits in the US were serious boys clubs. I have felt marginalized and unwelcome on many occasions, and it is still very possible to feel that way as a woman in the industry in 2019. It’s true for female makers (distillers or otherwise), owners, bartenders, servers—even those working at beverage-focused events or traveling solo for work.
All that said, I am astounded by the progress we have made at making women feel more welcome in craft spirits and premium rum. It has happened as a result of people working hard to speak up, elevate minority voices and stay unrelentingly committed even when it is hard.
“I am astounded by the progress we have made at making women feel more welcome in craft spirits and premium rum.”
My goal has been to talk about the hard topics without accusation or blame to make sure they are visible—that way we know what needs to change. I am really proud of the role I’ve played in opening doors and helping women step across the thresholds. I mentor many younger and newer women entering the business. What a joy to see them succeed.
How do you feel about the controversy over sweetened versus unsweetened rum?
I have deliberately chosen not to dip my toe too far into this discussion, though I do think it is helping dispel the myth that rum is sweet. I personally prefer less sweet rum—this is why I started Montanya Distillers in the first place. I’m grateful for the discussion.
In all rum conversations (and all discussions, for that matter), I’m an advocate of transparency. When I try a new rum, I want to know where it’s made, where it’s bottled, the raw ingredients, where those ingredients are grown, who harvested the sugarcane, and what style of rum it is. (Not all of this is on the label.)
I want the answers to be truthful and transparent, and unfortunately, you can still encounter lies, smokescreens, and omissions. It is only after this research that I consider, do I like this rum?
I don’t care much if the person next to me likes a rum, or if it is popular (or unpopular) to say I like it. Tastes change—mine included. One taste of an “old friend” rum from a decade ago can take me back to where I first tasted it, who I was with, what music I was listening to. Nostalgia seems to have a flavor of its own.
How do you feel about the efforts being made to classify, categorize, and define rum on the international level? Are you for or against those efforts?
I prefer disclosure to classification. There are always exceptions to classifications, and some of the exceptions are the oldest and most beloved rums in the world. Categorizing them can be like trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
That said, I think this is a very simple issue. Historically in America, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) has had so few requirements for defining rum. As a result, many factory rums have been promoted as “craft.” Some craft produced rums have been misconstrued as factory produced because of the types of stills they are made on. For example, people mistake a column-distilled rum as factory produced and a pot still rum as craft, distinctions that are not necessarily accurate.
I believe we could do better with a set of questions, the answers to which illuminate the characteristics of each rum. The answers might look like this:
This rum is made from fresh pressed sugarcane juice from Martinique, pot distilled on Portuguese Hoga copper pot stills using steam jackets, aged for 6 years in American white oak that previously held whiskey using the solera method, proofed with water collected from rain. A small amount of caramel is added at bottling time.
Any distillery that wishes to add additional subtlety or detail may of course do so. This would be a big improvement over the current US requirement that we report only ingredients comprising over 2% of the formula. I think we can do a better job of capturing the diversity of this noble spirit.
What bothers you most in the world of rum?
Sanctimony. I seem to have a very low tolerance for anyone, from brand ambassadors to brand owners to liquor store buyers, being sanctimonious about rum.
I know we all want to be perceived as experts. We all want our rums to be perceived as among the greats. But sanctimony is a turn off to the consumer, and we never know enough about where our consumers are stepping onto the rum continuum. I want to celebrate and smile with them first and be part of their education later.
“In the age of internet forums, sanctimony has become even more common, and it only serves to create divides in the industry and turn off consumers.”
I remember my first sips of Zaya and thinking I didn’t like it. At that time Zaya was popular among many of the people who were advocating for premium rum. I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want to be sanctimonious.
As another example, I fell in love with Ron Zacapa early on. I had a chance to meet Lorena Vasquez early in my rum career at a dinner in London, and was so inspired by her sweet presence. When Diageo acquired the brand, so many people I respect disparaged it. Once again, I didn’t comment. I had loved it for too long to become a naysayer, even as I felt the liquid had changed. It was part of my continuum journey and who knows where I would have landed without it—I could be grateful for it.
In the age of internet forums, sanctimony has become even more common, and it only serves to create divides in the industry and turn off consumers.
What do you love most about the category of rum?
I have always loved how self-mocking, geeky, funny and intellectual the rum world can be. The people, the environments, the shirts, the cocktails, the history, the garnishes! It is all incredibly fascinating and alluring to me. One of my greatest joys has been being part of the conversations around premium rum and cocktails. I feel so honored to be a member of this esteemed family. They host the parties I want to go to!