MEET THE MAKER: KAREN HOSKIN, CO-FOUNDER OF MONTANYA RUM
Introducing Montanya Rum, the labor of love of Karen Hoskin, who after a three-decade affair with the spirit decided to cement the relationship by learning to make it herself. From the get go, she was determined for it to be a 100% American rum—they use non-GMO raw Louisiana sugarcane—with minimal impact on the environment. Fast forward nine years, and Montanya is exported to most US states and they’ve won many shiny awards.
Here Karen tells Thirstie about the decision to go green, about Colorado’s unexpected history of rum bartering, and why she hopes rum isn’t the next big thing.
WHEN DID YOUR LOVE AFFAIR WITH RUM BEGIN?
I was sitting on a beach in Goa, India. I was 20 years old and taking a break from my year-abroad life of speaking only Hindi, living with an Indian family, and carefully observing the norms of being a female in a very traditional culture in Varanasi. All I wanted was a stiff drink. After many failed attempts and snifters of terrible Port (Goa is an old Portuguese colony), I hit upon Old Monk Rum. I was enamored immediately and spent the remainder of my holiday sipping it straight or mixing it with lime soda. So began a love affair that has spanned 29 years.
WHERE DID THE IDEA TO MAKE YOUR OWN RUM COME FROM?
There is a theme emerging here, because I was sitting on a beach in Belize this time. I had spent twelve years with my own design firm building brands for other clients. At the end of every project, after pulling all nighters and nursing my children between logo projects, I gave all my work away. By 2008, I wanted to keep something for myself. I explained this to my husband over rum cocktails one evening, and he asked me what I wanted to do next. His company was thriving and could support us if I decided to make a change. I told him I wanted to make rum. Four months later, we had a distilled spirits permit.
WERE THERE ANY FALSE STARTS?
The early days were quite hilarious. Our first building was an 800-square foot former brothel that housed our tasting room, distillery, barrel room and bottling line. One night, the pump that filled our bottling machine failed to shut off, and rum leaked through the floor and onto our tasting room bartender's head. The tasting room was packed shoulder to shoulder with Silverton Mountain skiers drinking double White Room cocktails—they tried hard to catch the leak with their mouths.
WE DON'T ASSOCIATE COLORADO WITH RUM - DOES IT HAVE ANY HISTORY OF RUM MAKING?
There are two rum lineages that matter to Montanya Distillers. I learned about mountain rum from Ron Zacapa in Guatemala. They age rum at 7,000 feet and believe that the temperature changes in the barrel really benefit the aging process. I agree. They believe that mountain spring water, which is 60% of what is in any bottle of spirits, makes a better rum. Island distilleries don't have either, but Colorado does.
Also, miners in the mountains of Colorado brought rum from the coasts (San Francisco and Boston) and used it as currency to pay for many of the things they wanted, including the services of ladies of the night. Rum predated whisky in the mining camps.
When we started in 2008, we thought there was some elegance to bringing back the original currency of our mining town, except we used it to buy bookkeeping and woodworking services instead.
YOU’RE 100% WIND POWERED - IS THIS A GREEN DISTILLING MODEL THAT YOU COULD SEE DISTILLERS FOLLOWING?
We are a relatively young industry and distilleries are popping up all over the place. We all use our fair share of electricity, water, natural gas, cups, cocktails straws, swag… We can be doing a better job sourcing everything for less impact. We decided long ago that this change starts with us; we offset our carbon and sponsor zero waste events.
WHAT DOES THE AVERAGE WORKING DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?
I wish I could say I got to stare at rum coming off the parrot spouts of my beautiful Alembic pot stills—that is a very meditative activity—but my days are hectic. I might be in Jerez, Spain, overseeing the bottling of Montanya Rum for the EU market, or I might be helping our bar staff launch a new cocktail menu for our 100-seat bar and restaurant on site at the distillery. I might be bottling Exclusiva or unloading empty barrels off a delivery truck with the forklift. It is different every day, but I prefer that—I get easily bored.
AS A WOMAN IN A TYPICALLY MALE-DOMINATED INDUSTRY, HAVE THERE BEEN ANY PARTICULAR HURDLES TO OVERCOME?
Once at a supplier dinner I asked aloud if we were all going out on the town afterward. Everyone got very sheepish because the van was coming soon to deliver them to a strip club. My presence can still be confusing sometimes. I have my knee patted often. I get indulgent smiles. But now, after nine years, I have learned to politely express when language or actions are sexist or when pronouns need to be revisited. I have slowly found a voice to demand respect without being shrill or apologetic. My husband Brice witnesses many of these moments and watches my toes curl. He picks me up, puts me back together when I want to quit, and gently prods me back to work.
WOULD YOU SAY RUM IS HAVING A MOMENT RIGHT NOW?
Everyone keeps telling me rum is ascendant, but I stopped waiting for rum to have its moment long ago. I adore its geeky, back room identity. Truthfully, I am a little scared that it will be the next big thing. It is like that moment when you are standing in the most spectacular cocktail bar when it wins Best Bar—suddenly people start showing up and breaking the glassware.
IF YOU WEREN’T MAKING RUM, WHAT WOULD YOU BE DOING?
I am working on a side project that is tremendously exciting. I can't say a whole lot until it launches in June, but it is an extension of my obsession with ecological responsibility. I want to help free people from the cycle of throwing away all kinds of single use garbage like coffee cups, plastic water bottles, to-go containers, and shopping bags. I have two amazing business partners and we're going to create a new lifestyle. You'll want to join us, I promise.
HOW WOULD YOU IDEALLY LIKE MONTANYA TO BE ENJOYED?
Let me take you, at least in your mind’s eye, to La Descarga in Hollywood. It is one of the authentic speakeasy bars created by Steve Livigni and Pablo Moix. I have such a wild crush on these brilliant barmen and everything they have ever created. There will be live salsa music on the mezzanine and people will be partner dancing. And good lord, can they dance. There is a dress code and a cigar room. You'll find me at the bar sipping a Queens Park Swizzle and unabashedly watching the dancers.
FINALLY, CAN YOU PROVIDE A COCKTAIL RECIPE FOR OUR READERS TO MAKE AT HOME?
THE TI' EXCLUSIVA (MY VARIANT ON A TI' PUNCH)
- 1 fresh lime, squeezed
- .5 oz organic simple syrup
- 2.5 oz Montanya Exclusiva Rum
In a shaker, combine ingredients. Shake and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with lime twist.