While it’s possible to run a distillery by computer, we prefer to distill and age rum using some of the oldest traditions in the world. We batch distill over a direct flame using handmade Alembic copper pot stills and make our rum at altitude because these practices add so much to the final product—elements that are hard (if not impossible!) to program into a machine. And really, there’s just something fulfilling about a human-driven process. It adds art and creativity to the science.
We start at the Elk Avenue Distillery by fermenting pure sugar cane from family growers and a family-owned mill in Louisiana. (We’re lucky enough to know these farmers personally, and many of them have worked their land for generations.) The sugar cane, water and yeast ferment for six to seven days, at which point there's almost no sugar left: just alcohol and water. (Want a by the numbers look at the process? Check out this blog post.)
At the Distillery
Distiller Gilles Huegi adds sugar cane to the fermentation tanks at the Crested Butte Distillery.
Following fermentation, the “wash” goes into the main pot of the stills (ours are copper and handmade at Distilarias Ea de Vie in Portugal). The alchemy begins as our distiller heats the wash to separate the alcohol from the water (alcohol is lighter than water and has a lower boiling point, so it boils off first).
The alcohol travels up through the bulbs above the pot, across what is called the swan's neck and into a condenser before coming out as rum. It's almost that simple!
Key Parts of the Rum Still
The lentil. This unique shape at the top of the still (top right, below the copper tube) hides an inside channel that forces steam to flow upward in a spiral, while cold water runs across the top. This creates precise and consistent reflux.
The swan's neck. This curved copper tube (at the top of the photo) carries the steam across to the condenser, where it is cooled.
The condenser. This tank (on the left of the picture) is filled with a steady stream of cold water, turning hot steam into cool liquid high-proof rum.
The complexity comes into the process because the liquid that comes out of the still has several hundred different alcohol compounds, each with a distinct flavor and boiling point. We carefully monitor what comes out of the still, keeping what tastes great and throwing away the rest—a process called making cuts. The copper of the still even plays an important role in improving the flavor as it interacts with the alcohol.
Headed to the Barrel House
To save our aching backs, we use a pulley system to transport barrels of rum from the Distillery in downtown Crested Butte into the rig that transports them to the barrel house two miles south of town.
Aging and Bottling
After we collect the best part of the rum, we put it into an American White Oak barrel that previously held Laws Colorado Whiskey for 2-5 years. We transfer it from the Elk Avenue Distillery to our Barrel House and Bottling Facility in Riverland, two miles south of town. There, we age it until it's mature and smooth. Our limited-edition Exclusiva is also finish aged in French Oak barrels which previously held Cabernet Sauvignon and Port from Sutcliffe Vineyards.
We bottle Montanya Rums using pure mountain water from a snowmelt and spring-charged aquifer below the Bottling Facility. This water is free from heavy metals yet contains minerals that add so much to the flavor—a unique ingredient that accounts for 60% of every bottle.
Bottling Montanya Rums
The Barrel House and Bottling Facility is about 9,000 feet above sea level, lending many benefits to the aging process.
The Benefits of Altitude
Our home in Crested Butte is nearly 9,000 feet above sea level. The altitude affects our rums, and for the better. The wash in our stills boils at a lower temperature than at other rum distilleries. This may be part of the formula that makes our rums unique.
And aging in barrels at elevation also adds character: the natural temperature fluctuations in our barrel room cause the rum to move more frequently in and out of the oak. The resulting rums are smoother and offer more complex flavors as a result. (Want to know more? Check out this blog post on distilling at altitude.)