Premium rum isn’t just a Caribbean thing anymore. Tucked away high in the Rocky Mountains—just about the last place anyone would call “tropical”—there’s a small-batch distillery that’s spent the past eight years changing everything we thought we knew about the stuff. From producing award-winning, historically warm-weather spirits almost two miles above sea level to driving the evolution of the regional craft bar scene, Montanya Rum has put Crested Butte, Colorado on the map as more than just a ski town.
Montanya co-founders Karen and Brice Hoskin never set out to build a conventional distillery. “One of the things that people have said since day one is, ‘Rum in the mountains? Why would you do that?'” The short answer, it seems, is that there’s a long answer.
“We Didn’t Have a Clue What We Were Doing”
Getting to this point has been quite a journey for the Hoskins. Rum has always held a special place in Karen’s heart, but it wasn’t until a trip to a mountain distillery in Belize that she realized her location in the Rockies was the perfect place to produce a truly unique, all-American rum.
“I was doing marketing and branding for other people and was building these really strong companies over and over, and I wanted to do it for myself,” Karen said when we sat down with her recently. “In Belize, we tasted some really fabulous rums for the first time, and then kind of started thinking about it.” It was perfect timing. The cocktail renaissance was in full swing by 2008, and bartenders all over were looking for craft and small-batch spirits to set their menus apart. “When we started to feel that kind of upswell in craft distilling, I felt really strongly that it was now or never.
“At first, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing—maybe we still don’t,” she admits. “There’s a whole world of spirits, how they’re sold, and how they’re promoted, and it’s very old and, well, entrenched. I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the players… I didn’t know anything, really. I think it’s been about eight years that I’ve been in the taking-information-through-a-fire-hose phase. But I love to learn and I’m not very tolerant of being confused.”
That early confusion has nonetheless yielded some fabulous products. Montanya’s Platino Rum has been awarded nine gold medals and two Best in Class designations at international competitions, as well as Best White Rum at the 2015 World Rum Awards. It has compelling, sweet notes of vanilla and spice, and is surprisingly full in the mouth, which is reminiscent of a much older spirit. Their Oro Rum has a great, chocolatey-coffee finish, and is similarly full of flavors that make it feel wise beyond its years.
A Distillery on High
The secret to all of this is the environment in which Montanya is produced. Essentially, barrel-aged spirits mature by taking up flavor from the wood they’re stored in, and the low pressure and oxygen at high altitude affect that process pretty drastically. The science behind it is something Karen is truly passionate about, and it shows when she starts to talk about what sets them apart.
“We’re at quite a high elevation, so our alcohol boils at a lower temperature, and as a result it’s beaten up less in the still. Our barrel aging process is also affected by the big fluctuations in temperature, which also introduces pressure into the system, pushing the rum deeper into the barrel so it benefits from deeper char. You can just taste it in everything about the rum.” For all of the talk of sending whiskey casks into space to see how microgravity impacts aging, or to the bottom of the ocean to understand how high pressure speeds maturation, there’s little mention of this alpine distilling where crafty artisans can get the effects of both.
The Hoskins not only closely study the process used to produce their rum, they’re also committed to doing so as sustainably as possible. The sugarcane they use is produced entirely in Belle Plains, Louisiana by a small, family-owned producer called Lula. “People ask us all the time why don’t we use organic sugarcane, and the reason is that to use organic sugarcane in the quantities that we need, we would have to get it from Paraguay or Uruguay, which would kind of defeat the purpose for us,” Karen said. “The labor standards aren’t great, the cost to transport it is high, environmental standards of the processing aren’t great—you put it on a container ship and ship to the US, and then put on a train to Colorado—it just didn’t feel right.”
Lula, on the other hand, was a dream come true for Karen. “We actually have a really close relationship with the family, which is a six generation sugarcane grower. It’s nice to be able to pull them into a room and know that they’re never going to say anything that I’m not comfortable with, because they don’t do anything that I’m not comfortable with. They have a very transparent approach—they don’t want Roundup being sprayed on the crops because their families and their kids live right there. So we share a philosophy, which is great, and the sugarcane is amazing.”
The Montanya operation itself is a model for sustainable distilling. They’ve made it a priority to limit their environmental impact, from recycling bottles used in their tasting room to choosing corks with the smallest carbon footprint possible. A particularly innovative solution they’ve devised is that all of the heat used to keep their facility warm comes directly from their distillation process. In most distilleries, waste heat from distillation is just that, but in the frigid mountains it’s an invaluable commodity.
Mixing it Up
That cleverly-cozy facility is more than just a warehouse these days. Rum has long been Karen’s favorite spirit, but its relative scarcity on cocktail menus always bothered her. Not only did this inform her career as a distiller, but it inspired her to open her own tasting room and cocktail bar on-site at the distillery. “It’s been really important that we have a really good cocktail program at our rum bar in Crested Butte, and I just recently found out that we’re number one on TripAdvisor for food and beverage programs in the area. It’s really a huge part of who we are and what we do.”
Over the years, the cocktails featured on Karen’s menu have become local legends. Fans of her drinks are in luck, as the Hoskins and Montanya recently published their twenty favorite recipes in their first-ever book, Elevated Cocktails. Complete with some truly breathtaking photography (and, of course, excellent cocktails), it’s one we’d highly recommend for the home booze library. Karen and Brice were kind enough to provide us with a few sample recipes, which you can peruse on Bevvy and mix to your heart’s content.
In addition to seeing their first publication, 2015 has also marked the birth of the newest addition to the Montanya lineup, their three-year-old Exclusiva. This complex, smoky rum is aged for two years in American white oak barrels that previously held Colorado whiskey. It’s then transferred to Cabernet Sauvignon and Port casks from Sutcliffe Vineyards, where it’s aged for an additional six months. It’s a truly unique rum that marks yet another innovation from the ever-iconoclastic Hoskin family.
Despite claiming to not know what they’re doing, it’s pretty clear that Karen and Brice have figured out how to run quite a successful distillery. Their award-winning rums are making their way onto new shelves all the time, and it seems like Montanya is poised to become one of the premiere craft rum producers in the United States. With their commitment to excellent distilling rivaled only by their commitment to transparency and ethics, it’s hard to imagine a brand more deserving.
Photos: Montanya Rum