The story goes that with one sip of rum, our guest was hooked. No spirit would have quite the same effect on her, ever. Her life took many twists and turns with rum on the side lines, until one day she knew it was time to make her own.
Karen Hoskin wasn’t going to let the little fact that she lived in the mountains of Colorado stop her. She has proved all the naysayers, more than wrong, especially after her Montanya Rum won Best Rum in the World at the World Rum Awards. After ten years, she continues to relive that first moment with rum over and over again.
Transcription of this podcast below is made possible by Montanya Rum!
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Karen: I was born in the Bronx. My parents knew from day one that they were going to get out of the Bronx at some point, but my dad was in law school, and they were living in this tiny, little apartment that you could basically touch both walls of the apartment at the same time. So when the kids came along, they bailed to Maine. And I grew up in Maine.
Susan: Were your parents from the Northeast originally?
Karen: They’re from outside of New York City, Bronxville. So they’re Westchester County folk. But my parents knew early on that they wanted to be in Maine. My dad’s parents had a little cottage up in Maine that they would go to in the summer, and they just loved it. So we moved to Maine, and I lived there all the way until I went off to college when I was eighteen.
Susan: And did you stay in the Northeast for college
Karen: I did. I went to Williams College, which is up in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts – a little, liberal arts college, but an incredible education. I always joke and say the liberal arts education just basically teaches you how not to say no. It’s this thing about, “Of course I can do that. I don’t care what it is. I’ll figure it out. I know how to figure it out. I have the tools to figure it out.”
Susan: My dad always said that the liberal arts education taught you how to think. I don’t know if that’s true or you get out knowing how to think, but that’s why it wasn’t so important to know your trade yet because he had been, like, a biology major, going to be a doctor, and he was like, “Wait a sec. I forgot to learn how to think about anything else.” So I totally agree with you.
Karen: My kids are both in universities where they started on day one with their major, and I’ve always thought that was a little sad. Take philosophy, take Buddhism. I want them to have a more well-rounded education than just their field, but that’s what I did.
Susan: So saying that, I guess you didn’t know, please correct me if I’m wrong, what you wanted to do when you grew up, going into university?
Karen: Not even coming out of university. I didn’t have a clue. When I left college, I just got in my car and drove to San Francisco. I had no idea what kind of job I was going to look for. I had no idea what work I wanted. I just knew that I was somewhat obsessive about, some of the same principles that I’m obsessive about now, sustainability, social responsibility, taking care of people. So I went and worked for a political consulting firm in San Francisco for quite a while.
Susan: But you thought San Francisco, or at least California, would have those answers? As opposed to the east coast?
Karen: I did. I sort of saw San Francisco as the shining beacon of liberalism, and all of the things that I cared about at the time, and so I was going to go check it out. Working on political campaigns in San Francisco was quite an education. It was right about the time that the protests against the war in Afghanistan were happening. They were flipping cars, and lighting things on fire in the streets of San Francisco in 1990. So I was really in the middle of something…
Susan: Did you feel like, “Yes! This is exactly what I wanted to be, where I wanted to be!” Or were you more like, “Ooh, I should have gone to the east coast?”
Karen: No, it was terrifying. I was like, “Wow, this is a little extreme for me.”
Susan: So, San Francisco, there’s, you know, a bar scene there. Did you have anything to do with that bar scene?
Karen: I did, except that I was pretty dead broke. That was the biggest problem of my whole time in San Francisco was that I was a political organizer. I wasn’t making any money. I had a really expensive, beautiful apartment with some friends from school. What I got better at than going to bars was creating a bar in my own beautiful apartment where all of my friends would come, and I would make cocktails all evening.
That was early, early on for me, that was an identity that I had in my dorm room in college. Because I didn’t drink beer, and didn’t go to those keg parties, I would always make cocktails in my room, and friends would come over, and we’d have more of this sultry, sophisticated environment than the hammerhead keg parties of schools.
Susan: Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but it is age twenty-one to drink. Was it then?
Karen: It was. Not when I was at Williams, though. Well, it was in Massachusetts.
Susan: Some states changed because when I was nineteen in New York, you could still drink. There was a grandfather clause.
Karen: You could go over the borders of Vermont, which was only, like, five minutes away. So we’d ride our bikes out to Vermont in college and buy alcohol in the Vermont liquor stores legally, and then come back.
Susan: So why rum? Or, should I say, why couldn’t you drink beer?
Karen: Celiac. I was not diagnosed then, but I just knew that it made me feel terrible. There were a lot of foods that made me feel terrible.
Susan: I’m sure. There were a lot of people that didn’t know they were celiac then.
Karen: It took a long time, until about ten years ago.
Susan: I love that you were that you were already a bartender and all.
Karen: I had bartending jobs in the summer in Bar Harbor, Maine, and in Camden, Maine, and in Portland, Maine. And I would get these jobs in these really high-end bars. The things we were making back then are kind of hilarious now, like Amaretto Sours, and Fuzzy Navels, and White Russians. We didn’t know how uncool that was going to eventually be.
Susan: I think it’s retro now, so it may be cool again.
Karen: I make a drink in my bar that is like a White Russian, but it’s made with really good rum, and we make our own coffee infusion. So there are ways to elevate even some of those original cocktails.
From an early time, I loved making cocktails for people, but I recognized that I didn’t love gin. Gin made me sick. Vodka was just boring. It didn’t have any benefit to the cocktail. Whiskey was too much. It was like a punch in the face when I was twenty, twenty-one. But rum was my spirit from such an early time, and then I would start looking around for better and better rums.
Susan: Do you remember the first ones?
Karen: Oh, yes, I remember exactly where I was, exactly what I was doing. I was in India for a year in college. I went to a bar in Goa, and I was sitting at the bar talking to this bartender, and he kept trying to feed me port, and all these really fortified wines in general, and they just weren’t to my taste at that point. I’ve developed a bit of a taste for them now, but when he handed me this Old Monk rum, which is not the most fantastic rum – it’s over-sweetened, it’s over-colored, it’s not considered to be a premium rum, but to me, at the age of twenty, or nineteen, it was a premium rum, and it was aged.
So it was the first time I tasted that robust flavor of age on a spirit, and that was the beginning for me, where I thought, this is the spirit I’m going to become more educated about. I’m going to find better and better versions of this, and that just lead to a lifetime of exploration.
Susan: What’s interesting to me is that you found you didn’t like beer, but you still wanted to drink something – you did skip over that you were bartender during college – and that you still wanted to enjoy alcohol.
That was definitely a part of your life. Even in college, I was thinking I’m going to drink this horrible stuff, obviously didn’t make me sick, but I drank a lot of really bad beer without even thinking that maybe there was something else out there other than the Fuzzy Navel.
Karen: I think that’s the reality of being celiac is you just start to figure out, what is it that’s going to make me not feel awful the next day? Because it’s not like a hangover. It’s like the flu. So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what can I consume? This is what all my friends were doing, everybody’s hanging out and drinking. How can I come up with a way to do this that is sustainable for me, where the next day I’ll wake up and feel great?
So that first sip of rum on that beach in India, I just remember waking up the next morning after being with all these Brits who were there for a yoga retreat, and we drank, not heavily because I never have been a heavy drinker, but we had some cocktails that night, and I woke up the next morning feeling like a million bucks. I went out and, like, ran on the beach. I thought, “That’s how I want to feel the next day.”
As a bartender, you can’t help but be aware that you’re purveying things to other people, and you want them to feel good the next day, too. You want them to wake up and feel like they had an experience, and not a headache. That became kind of a thing for me as a bartender, of how can I give my consumers an experience that’s going to make them feel okay the next day?
Susan: Of course. Now, when you went back to the States after your time in India, were you looking for Old Monk? Did you go, “I’ve gotta find this stuff again?”
Karen: I did.
Susan: Or, I was saying, if you didn’t find it, did your rum education begin then?
Karen: It really began then, because this was more than thirty years ago. There weren’t great, premium rums on any shelf of any liquor store. It was all just the mass market brands, for the most part. I started trying to find some more premium styles that I could actually buy.
When you said that about Old Monk, there must have been a brand ambassador for Old Monk in Massachusetts at the time because every now and then you’d see it on the shelf of a bar in Boston. I would go to Boston on a fairly regular basis for various school-related things, and I would find Old Monk, and that was just – that first thing that you have an amazing experience with, when you taste it again, it’s like it conjures up, not only what you tasted, but also where you were, who you were with, what your memories of that time are, and they’re so sacred and special.
Even though I don’t drink Old Monk now, it’s sacred to me. When I was in India a couple years ago, I hiked nine miles from a dry state in India into a state where you could buy alcohol just to buy a tiny bottle of Old Monk. Just for old time’s sake.
Susan: I hope someone from Old Monk is listening to this. But you know, really, there wouldn’t be a Montanya if there hadn’t been an Old Monk, so it’s definitely related.
All right, we still have a lot to get to before we talk about Montanya.
So you came back from India, you’re a political consultant in San Francisco, making your own house a bar. What were the steps? Of course, there were a lot of steps, but to get to start Montanya between drinking the first glass to setting up your own shop?
Karen: I knew pretty quickly when I got to San Francisco that I was going to have to get out. I’m not a city person. It took going to San Francisco, after growing up in Maine, being in the Berkshires, it was really my first urban living experience. It was pretty quick that I figured out that that was not my thing. This was in the early days of mountain biking, and I spent my weekends with my mountain bike out in the Marin Headlands, just out of the city.
Susan: Because San Francisco, if there’s any city that’s the most outdoor-y kind of city, it’s San Francisco.
Karen: It was a fairly good fit that way. But to be broke in San Francisco, with a mountain bike and riots, I was consuming too much news, I discovered. They had a morning paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, and then they had the evening paper, The Examiner, and I was listening to a lot of NPR, and at some point I was like, “I can’t.” I can’t work in political consulting all day, read the paper in the morning, read the paper at night, and listen to NPR on my commute in my company car. It was a pretty sweet gig, but I just couldn’t do it anymore. I knew that was sort of crushing my soul.
So my boyfriend at the time, now my husband, was living in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was an environmental consultant, and he wrote me this tiny, little, hand-written note, on a piece of paper that said, “Just got a new apartment, plenty of room for two”. I packed up my car not long after that, and drove to Flagstaff, Arizona, where I didn’t have a job, prayed that I was going to get something.
My husband is famous for always saying, “Well, what do you wanna do?” And I think about it, and in this case, I said, “I want to be a Hot Shot,” which is a wildland firefighter. So I got a job with a fire crew as soon as I got there. It was perfect timing. I moved in May, got a job with a fire crew, and that was the beginning of an era of schlepping a chainsaw through the woods for a long time, and just pushing myself physically in the mountains fighting fires.
It was not like it is now, where it’s just raging in all directions, but we had some scary, intense fire experiences, and it taught me a lot about myself, and my courage, and my capacity.
Susan: You are fearless! In the other interviews I have listened to, that doesn’t come across.
Karen: That was a lovely period of time. It also solidified my relationship with my now husband. We’ve been together for thirty years. It also was when I looked at the whole idea of starting a brewery because I could sense, and I could feel, this craft brewing thing coming, and I absolutely loved it. I loved everything about it, except the beer.
Susan: Was there a lot of that happening in Flagstaff at that time?
Karen: No, but soon after, it was printing money, you know? So the new breweries started up maybe two years after we were flirting with that idea, and we just realized that – this was my husband and me together – we realized we didn’t have enough money. We realized we really wanted to travel more, and that we were going to be anchored to this business for five to ten years with just all of our hearts and souls, and that I didn’t love beer.
Susan: That would’ve been the first thing – ding-ding-ding, but what’s interesting to me is that, while you’re firefighting, you’re thinking about creating something, and that you have that entrepreneurial instinct to start something. Why do you think it developed into this idea of a brewery? What was it about that creative process?
Karen: I think I’ve always been attracted to being a maker. I know what my skills are, and what they aren’t. I don’t like to sew. I don’t like to paint. So my whole career, from that moment on, became being a maker, so I decided not to do the brewery.
Susan: Since you’re a rum drinker, why do you think it became a brewery, not then a rum distillery?
Karen: Because it wasn’t even a concept then. There was whisky being made in Kentucky, basically. But this was, so far prior to the craft spirits movement. If I had had an inkling in that moment that you could make a distillery, and in Flagstaff, Arizona, believe me, I would have jumped on it. I also probably would have driven it into the ground because I didn’t have enough money. I didn’t have people I knew who could back me. And it wasn’t a thing, so people would have been like, “What are you doing? Making rum?”
They were still like that years later when I did do it, but I just think it would have been premature. I had to spend some time cultivating some more skills, saving some money, and doing some other things that would give me more confidence to go that route later.
Susan: When you decided that you weren’t going to do the brewery, did you shelve that idea of creating some kind of spirit, in the back of your brain, or did you – you must have, obviously, because we’re sitting here talking about your own distillery. But at that time, can you remember putting it back somewhere and thinking, “All right, might revisit this later, but I’m not sure how it’s going to come out?”
Karen: I’m not sure I remember putting it away then, but I definitely remember pulling it back out later when I started to feel that exact same feeling, only about spirits. I started to imagine that the next boom was going to be craft spirits. This was before, when there were maybe two or three that I knew of. Tuthilltown in New York was just starting, and Stranahan’s, and some of those cool, early distillers. But they were all making whiskey.
I remember when I started to feel that again, I was like, “Oh, I remember when I felt this about breweries, and look what happened with them.” They just blew up, and boomed, and went crazy all over the United States, and still are. So I thought, I’m not going to miss this one.
I know I skipped a long period of time between there, but that was really the moment where I said, “Okay, this is my chance. I’ve got money in the bank. I’ve traveled the world, and gotten that out of my system. I have two kids, and they’ll be fine if I work a little. I don’t necessarily want to be on the move as much, so I’m settled in a place where I can really focus on something.”
I had just been to Guatemala, and discovered the whole mountain tradition of rum. So there was this perfect storm of the ding, ding, ding you talked about, only that it was like, yes, everything was a yes. This is the right thing. It’s the right time. It’s the right place. It’s the right concept.
Susan: Let’s set that scene. You’re fighting fires, doing incredible things for the world, but I know that you live in Colorado now. What was the move from Flagstaff to then get to Colorado?
Karen: Global climate change. We were living right on the edge of the painted desert. We were about forty minutes outside of Flagstaff. We had built a really sustainable house – solar-powered, off the grid, all of our water was hauled, and we started to feel this creeping weather change.
The first years that we were there, there were 300 inches of snow on the San Francisco peaks. We were backcountry skiing all the time. Then it was like no snow. My husband and I are both obsessive backcountry and Nordic skiers, so we started migrating further and further north to try to find the snow. We ended up in Silverton, Colorado, which was just getting hammered with snow back then.
We finally bought a little tiny piece of land up there, and we thought, we’ll build ourselves a little cabin up there that we can go and that’ll be our escape from this encroaching heat challenge in Arizona.
I remember so clearly, on the days that we would be planning to leave for Colorado, just feeling the heat so overwhelmingly, and feeling like I had to get out of there. I’m not a hot weather person.
So we would make these migrations up there, then we built this cabin in Silverton, and then we both just cracked up because we looked at each other one day, and were like, “We’re moving to this cabin, aren’t we?” We had never talked about it. It wasn’t even really big enough for our family of four, but we both knew that that was kind of what was happening.
We rented our house in Flagstaff, and moved to Silverton in 2001, and it was just the most amazing thing. We went from being off the grid, forty minutes outside of town, to being right in the middle of town in this community that is incredibly tight-knit. That was when the idea of the distillery really began to ferment.
Susan: Now, while this was happening, you said you were in Guatemala, but were you training your rum tongue? Were you always traveling and drinking different kinds of rum? What was that kind of rum education?
Karen: Sure. Again, I was the person who, for whatever reason, was always making the cocktails everywhere – at my family gatherings, with my parents. My grandparents’ cottage in Maine went down to my parents, and then I inherited it when my father died.
We would go to Maine, and it would be like a family gathering, and I would be making mojitos when nobody knew what a mojito was, back in the day. Because of my time in India, I started infusing rum with the spices of chai. This was forever ago – I can’t even tell you – before I had kids, my kids are now nineteen and twenty-one.
So I started infusing rum with chai spices, and then making these homemade ginger beers and ginger ales, and making these cocktails. The most popular cocktail in my menu in my rum bar is called The Maharajah. It’s those cocktails, cultivated over another ten years of evolution. But my rum tongue was still pretty uncultivated then. I don’t think I really had tasted enough really good rum because it was so hard to find.
I would use Matusalem, or I would use Ron Zacapa. I still understood that there was a difference between mass market Bacardi, and the terrible Malibus, and the spiced rums, and things like that, and these, what are now, not the high grade versions of the aged rums. But I wasn’t there yet. I didn’t totally understand that.
Maybe I still don’t because I still have a lot of affinity for some of those early experiences of mine with rum. I’m not very sanctimonious or snobby about rum. My feeling is, people should find a rum that they like, and then over time it will change.
They’re going to taste something new, and they’re going to get excited about something different. Over time, they’re going to cultivate their discernment or their interest in it. So I’m not willing to make anybody feel bad about what they like.
Susan: No, and then they’ll go back to the first one, and still love it because it reminds them of everything. Please, I love Hershey’s chocolate. I get so much stink about that in England. Because it was the first chocolate I ever ate, so I can appreciate the Green & Black’s, or whatever, but a Hershey’s Kiss…
Karen: Well, smell is so associated with our experience. All of our memories can be heavily associated with smell.
That’s what I remember the most of that first sip of rum, was just the smell of it. The butter scotch, or the vanilla.
Susan: And rum does smell delicious.
Karen: It’s like the best smell. I walked into a seminar room yesterday at the UK RumFest, and it was just filled with Jamaican high ester, because it was a Worthy Park seminar. I walked in there and was like, “Oh my God, I love the smell of this room.”
I think I started with some earlier concepts of what rum is, but then I started to meet some really influential people in the rum world, or be exposed to more interesting rums over time. I came to the UK RumFest ten years ago for the first time, and started to get some more exposure.
I would say, even when I started a distillery, I didn’t know everything about rum that I needed to know. I was a bit naive, and a bit undereducated. What I do remember was going on a mission, years ago before Montanya distillers, to buy all these different, what I thought were, high-end rums. The price point seemed high-end or whatever. Then sitting down, and tasting them and being like, “I don’t like that one.” “I love that one.” “This one maybe tastes good, but I think it’s a little over-sweetened.”
I started to be able to hone in on the fact that I was more of a fan of the rums that came from Central and South America, than I was from the island, Caribbean styles. I started to differentiate between Agricole styles, and Esters, and Congeners, and what was contributing to all the flavors in the rum. It took me a long time, and I am still learning every single day.
What I loved during that time was this sense of stepping into the room. I’m sure people feel this when they’re into whiskey or Scotch or something. They step into the room with the Scotch people, and they’re like, Whoa. I wouldn’t have had that with Scotch people, but I fully had that with the rum people.
The first time I met another person who was like, “No, I’m a serious rum fan.” I was like, “What?” I hadn’t met another serious rum fan for ten years.
Susan: So you weren’t, a rum tourist, as I say. Like, did you go to the islands? You were in Guatemala, just to go to Guatemala, and you happened upon their rum?
Karen: First, I was in Belize, just to go to Belize, and I happened upon their rum, which is the One Barrels, the Five Barrels. And they’re fine, nothing special there, but the thing I discovered in Belize was Marie Sharp’s, which is this hot sauce that this woman named Marie has been making in Belize forever.
It’s sort of the national product of Belize, and everybody who’s ever been to Belize knows Marie Sharp’s. She created this amazing company that was doing business as a force for good in Belize because Belize was pretty poor when she started.
She was using locally grown ingredients, carrots, and in her case, chili peppers. She was making something really quite exceptional. It was really her story, though, and her mission, what she wanted to give back to her community, the schools, and the people that was what resonated with me, even more than the rum.
We did drive around all these back roads trying to find the distillery of One Barrel, and eventually I remember seeing the wash tanks in the distance, but you couldn’t get through the fence. It was like they didn’t get the concept of a tasting room, like a public interface. Then on that same trip, we went to Guatemala, and that’s where I discovered that there was this whole concept of mountain rum.
In my rum world, people have a lot of different feelings about Ron Zacapa. It’s Celera method, which, in the world of aging, is not as well-respected as some of the other types of aging. It’s got added sweetening, et cetera. Again, I don’t really care, because it was a pivotal moment for me, discovering Ron Zacapa, discovering the XO Ron Zacapa, which is their elevated spirit, learning that they did take their barrels up to 7000 feet in the mountains to age, trying to understand, Why would you do that? What makes sense about that process starting?
That was the beginning of my excitement about learning more about sugar cane. I’m kind of a geek about sugar cane because I have had to spend so much time figuring out how to source sustainable sugar cane. I’ve had to learn a lot about how it’s grown, where it’s grown, and what are the challenges.
But Ron Zacapa was the “ah-ha” moment. I sometimes hate the fact that in my rum world, people sort of shake their heads at Ron Zacapa, or roll their eyes. For me, it was learning about a mountain tradition of rum. That was the “ah-ha” moment.
Susan: When you were there, were you already thinking about the distillery?
Karen: That trip was the birth. So no.
Susan: It was the eureka moment.
Karen: I was thinking about a career change. I’d been a brand builder and a graphic designer for twelve years at that point. I was doing people’s logos, designing their marketing campaigns, and their websites. I was self-taught on all levels. So that was what I was referring to when I mentioned being a maker. I was spending quite a lot of time being a maker.
I was making collaterals for other people’s companies. I would design trade show booths, and all of this stuff. And at the end of every project, I would just hand it over to someone else and say, “Here you go, Good luck. I hope your business does great.” I said to my husband at the beginning of that trip, sitting on Tobacco Caye in Belize, “I just give everything I do away. I want to keep it at the end of the day. I want my own brand. I want to build my own brand.” He had a business at the time that could support us if I gave up my graphic design clients, then learning about the mountain tradition, that began a real passionate exploration.
Susan: All of a sudden you were like, “Wait a sec. I still wanted that brewery.” That little, little thing was unlocked in your brain.
Karen: Exactly. Then there’s a mountain tradition, not just in Guatemala, but in Colombia, and in Panama, and all these other places where they came to recognize the value of temperature change in the barrel, altitude pressure, mountain water, all these things that I’d never once heard in the rum world.
People in the Caribbean, they get water from rain, and rain has heavy metals, so they filter it. They RO filter it. It’s not something that they talk with pride about like they do in Scotland, about the water that really contribute so much of the minerality to Scotch.
Susan: And in Colorado you’re surrounded by water, A.K.A. snow.
Karen: Exactly. We’re in the capital of the best water in the world. There’s no question. The water that I use comes down as snow and rain, and percolates 350 feet through the ground to get to an aquifer. That is where I pull it from.
So imagine back in high school, I don’t know if you had to do this back in your high school, but in biology you’d have to build a filtration system. They would give you this little, plastic box, and you’d layer different things on, and you would have to demonstrate how you filtered water.
Well, I had such clear memories of that, so I could picture how, if you can pull your water from an aquifer after natural filtration through moss, or stone, or just natural material, then you’re not going to have to RO filter it, reverse osmosis filter it, and then you’re going to get a more flavorful water component.
Water is 60% of what’s in any bottle of rum, any bottle of any spirit, but any bottle of rum. Obviously, if it’s not eighty proof. Not always somebody’s higher proof spirits are not, they don’t have that higher content.
So that was the whole thinking process – mountain tradition, really good water, water filtration, then of course, I moved on to sugar cane. I was like, “Okay, so where’s the best sugar cane?” At the time, I gravitated toward the Hawaiian growers because they were, I felt, more sustainable.
I went deep on looking at Paraguay and Uruguay organic sugar cane, and I couldn’t get comfortable with the child labor portion of it. To me, you can’t grow something that’s organic, and say it’s organic, and then have kids out in the field, chopping cane, with Cobras, and whatever.
Susan: That you’re not paying a cent a minute.
Karen: Exactly. And over-exposed to the elements, and under-hydrated, and all that stuff. That was the beginning of my thinking about, how do I find sugar cane that I can feel good about in the industry? So I started buying from Hawaii, but I would buy it out of the commodity market in California from HCNS, which is Hawaii Cane and Sugar Company.
It was pretty clear to me early on that I didn’t think it was what they were telling me it was. So I asked HCNS to certify that it was American-grown because then I could feel better about some of the environmental aspects, and they wouldn’t. They said in order for us to certify, you have to take it directly from us in Hawaii, and ship it yourself. You can’t take it out of the commodity market in California.
Then I started pricing that out, and it was insanely expensive. I can’t even fathom how I would ever make a bottle of rum out of that sugar cane. That was the beginning of my search for a mainland sugarcane supplier, which I eventually found after five years of hard work.
They walked into my distillery, these growers from Louisiana, and that was the beginning of this beautiful family relationship. She’s from Crested Butte. She was born in Crested Butte, Colorado. She grew up in the Gunnison Valley. They met in my town and they’re sugar cane growers in Louisiana.
That’s a whole other story. I just skipped years forward, but it’s just an example of what I have been doing, which is really working hard to know about every impact in every aspect of the business, and try to be a good steward.
Susan: Well, let’s just for everyone, go back to Guatemala a little. When you got back from Guatemala, were you like, “Okay, this is it?”
Karen: It was crazy. I was like, “It is so it.” Luckily, my husband’s company had a very seasonal aspect to it. So in May when we got back from this trip, he was in a chill time of his work. So I said, “Will you help me?”
Susan: Does he like rums as much as you do?
Karen: He does now. I wouldn’t say that he was as much of a fanatic about it back then. I think back then he would have said he was a gin guy.
Susan: But he was with you.
Karen: He was so with me, and he’s got so many amazing skills that I do not have. Literally from May 1st to November 1st we created a distillery. I can’t even tell you all the things that we did in that time. We chose and ordered a still from Portugal, and had it shipped. We got the paperwork submitted. We watched, basically, every single video about distilling on the American Distilling Institute website. We bought all the coffee table books like Rum by Dave Broom, and read everything.
I was somewhat obsessed, and we both had our day jobs, and two kids. I was building a preschool at the time because there was no preschool in my town, which meant raising a $1,000,000 to build the preschool, and raising these two small children. Anyway, you can imagine it was crazy times, but at the same time, I was creating a bar inside our distillery, and creating a cocktail menu for that bar.
Susan: Did you have space? I mean, you had to find a place to actually have a distillery, right?
Karen: We found this amazing 800 square foot building that was free standing, and it had been a brothel. It had four hour fire walls of stone. In the world of distilling, you worry a lot about firewalls and trench drains. How can you make the fire department, the fire inspectors, and the IBC (the International Building Code) all happy?
Susan: Right. It was like it was waiting for you.
Karen: It was cheap. This was Silverton when it was seriously economically depressed, and it was off the main street. So I said let’s sign a lease on this building.
It was almost like someone’s kitchen. Originally, I think this was a private house, but someone had turned it into a little nightclub in the meantime. I had gone dancing there before, so I knew about it. There was this little, L-shaped bar. It was tiny.
Susan: It was meant to be.
Karen: If I could transport you right now, back to that day, it was like being in the hold of a pirate ship with a bartender. It was like the coolest, little, speakeasy kind of feel to it. We were only open from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m, four days a week. Because of this phenomenon thing called Silverton Mountain in the winter, which was this cult ski area that people would come from all over the world to ski at, the doors would open at 4:00 p.m. and we would be totally standing room only. People would try to call ahead.
Susan: So you knew we’re onto something here.
Karen: Yeah, it was happening. Then we were incrementally increasing our hours and our days of the week. We still call last call at 9:00 p.m. Always. That will never change.
Susan: So what I was going to say, I could watch as many videos that American Distilling has on YouTube, but I definitely wouldn’t know how to make a rum. Did you? Were you, I don’t want to use the word scared, but did you think that the liquid that’s going to come out, “Is it going to be good enough?” How did you know?
Karen: The reason I was most scared was because back in time, I had decided – I probably shouldn’t say this live – I had decided to make rum on my stove top at home. Being from Maine, and being raised in a lobster-fishing family, where I would go out with my uncle and pull pots in the Penobscot Bay of Maine, you have to have a lobster pot. Everybody from Maine has a lobster pot, right? It doesn’t matter if you live in Colorado. Turns out lobster pots are a great way to make rum. So put it on the stove top, elevate a little section in the middle out of the –
Susan: Be careful what you say here. People may be doing it.
Karen: Then, I just turned the dome lid of the lobster pot over, which created the condensation, cooled it a little bit from the top, and it would drip the rum back into the little cup on the little raised thing in the middle.
Susan: I love this.
Karen:But the rum was like, that is not the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
Of course, it wasn’t aged, and I didn’t understand cuts. I didn’t understand how to make cuts, so it had heads in it. It had tails in it. It was all confused. There was a lot of learning to do after that.
Susan: Did you have the idea of the taste of an Old Monk in your head?
Karen: No, I was pretty sure that what I was doing, and the reason I was doing it was to create unsweetened rum because all the rums, the Old Monk, the Matusalems, and the Ron Zacapas, the Diplomaticas, everything was too sweet for me. I don’t have much of a sweet palate. What I realized was, I was spending time trying to tone down the sweetness of the rum in all the cocktails that I made. A lot of times you get a sweet cocktail with rum because it just means you’re not fighting the spirit.
Now, in this age of these premium rums that are unsweetened, there’s this beautiful movement toward eliminating sugar –
Susan: By regulation.
Karen: – eliminating additive sugar later, after distillation. Then, all of a sudden you don’t have to fight the rum anymore. You can make these incredible daiquiris, and these incredible Old Fashioneds, and it doesn’t have to be sweet anymore. That was an “ah-ha” moment for me was I’m doing this to make the rum that I want to drink because it doesn’t yet exist in my world.
Susan: How long did that take between setting up the still to what you…?
Karen: The first batch came out, and I was happy with it. The only thing I wasn’t happy with was that we were only able to age it for about six weeks before we opened the doors. So the first rums were really green, really fresh, and needed some age.
Now, the rums I’ve been serving at the UK Rum Festival are two, three, four years-aged. We’re about to release a new, four year. For some people, they probably think that doesn’t sound like a whole lot of age, but most rums that you read the age statement on, if it says it’s seven years, a lot of times, that’s the oldest rum in the bottle.
Susan: So it may even be a drop.
Karen: It may be a couple ounces of seven year, and everything else is younger.
Every rum that I make is a single barrel, and it’s 100% aged for the time that I say it is. It’s not blended. If it’s a four-year-old, it’s all four years old. That’s been my big coup of the last decade is to try to age more rum for longer. People always say, “Why don’t you have a ten-year-old, or an eleven-year-old?” Because I had to sell it all to survive.
Susan: I was going to bring that up. You said the first batch, you were like, “This is it.”
Karen: It was so good.
Susan: Oh, great. You obviously wanted to make this a business. When did you, or how did you, get the word out there? Also, was it always called Montanya? Did you say, “Oh, we’re going to call it Montanya?” Which to me is the French word for Mountain.
Karen: But it’s also the Spanish word.
Susan: Oh, is it? See, I don’t speak Spanish.
Karen: The decision to call it Montanya took forty seconds. I don’t know how it just emerged, but that was the name from the beginning that I was like, “That’s the name.” I also knew that we couldn’t spell it with the traditional Spanish tilde on the end because people in the U. S. would say Montana. We didn’t want to be “Montana Rum,” so I added the Y to be Montanya Rum so that way we could trade mark it, it was unique to us.
Susan: And people would pronounce it correctly.
Karen: Ideally. How cool would that be? No, everybody says Montanya. A lot of people say a lot of really interesting things. My approach is to re-pronounce it back to them when they say it wrong.
Susan: As long as they’re drinking it.
Karen: That’s exactly how I feel. You said it. That makes me happy.
Susan: So, did you start with from day one “I’ve got a bottle of it. I’m going to start to sell it, introduce it to everyone I can?”
Karen: We did, yes. That first bottling was 400 something bottles of rum, and we had this tasting room. We opened the doors, and we poured tastes, and we made cocktails, and it was busy and vibrant from the first minute.
Then, I was just telling the story yesterday in a seminar with Richard Seale, that I would pack the cab of the pickup truck with, I could fit forty-four cases in the cab of the pickup truck – I wouldn’t put it in the back because I didn’t have a cover, and I would leave the distillery. By my own set of rules, I wasn’t allowed to come home until I had sold it all.
I’d drive to Boulder, and walk into a liquor store, and say, “Hey, I’m making this craft rum in Colorado. Do you want some?” And they would say, “Sure,” like, to a person. They would taste it, and then they would say, “Yeah, sure.”
Also, the label was janky as heck back then, even though I was a brand builder. It’s come a long way since then. I didn’t know how to design a liquor brand. I was really shooting from the hip.
So, I would go out, sell the forty-four cases, take their checks, come home, deposit them, and be home with my kids for a week. Then, I’d pack the truck up, go out with another forty-four cases, and sell those. It was so organic. It always has been really organic.
Then, I walked into Republic National Distributing Company in Denver. You know, the multi-million, possibly multi-billion-dollar company. I walked through the floor-to-ceiling door into the corner office with the president of RNDC. They were distributing so many of the big brands that you know of, and I met with the leaders of RNDC, and this man Jim Smith, who passed away a couple years ago, which was devastating to me because he was my first supporter in the industry.
I said, “Do you guys want to carry our rum, and distribute it for us in Colorado?” And he said, “Sure.” And I was like, “Wait, did you just say yes? I don’t have to fight?”
RNDC Colorado has been in my corner in such a huge way for so long, and they’ve sold more rum than I can even talk about. They have grown their business with us every quarter, consistently double digits. It’s rare for them to have a quarter that isn’t, 12, 14, 17% growth on the brand, without us having a single paid sales rep in the market.
We’re not pumping money. We’re not paying for placements. We’re just working closely with these people whom we love. I know that many people talk about the distribution side very much because it’s kind of unsexy, but I am so grateful for that relationship. They’ve taught me a lot about the language. They taught me to speak the language of distribution, free goods, and all the things that you say when you’re talking to reps that’s the language they understand.
Susan: Let’s talk about the liquid itself. You had this fabulous first run. How did it grow? Because you have a lot of other expressions. Talk me through how it went. Why did you decide to add more, not simply continue with that one?
Karen: We started with the Platino and the Oro from day one, the two two-year-old rums that are kind of the core of our business. We went into a lot of competitions early on, just to try to understand and get validation from the judge community. We won twenty-four gold and silver medals right off the bat.
That was exciting for us to find we’re not the only ones that think this is good because it could have been. It could have been us just sitting there in our little, old brothel in Silverton, Colorado, drinking rum and being like, “We think it’s good. Does anybody else?”
That put us on the map, I would say, where we were, people were paying attention. People in the rum world were paying attention. Then, I would say it took a long time for me to have the bandwidth to even think about any other releases. The Exclusiva, which was our first other release, is only three or four years ago, I wish I remembered exactly.
That came about because I had a mentor early on who was this guy Jake Norris. He was making whiskey in Denver for Stranahan’s. Amazing, just a committed, craft distiller. Very obsessed with process, very obsessed with fermentation. He was just the geek I needed at that time. We would meet for a drink in a dive bar in Denver, and just talk for hours about everything, and he never cut me off. He never said, “You’re not going to be able to pull this off.” He never said, “What a stupid idea to make rum.”
Susan: Which I’m assuming that a lot of people did.
Karen: Oh, yeah. People were like, “Rum is not a mountain thing,” and I’m like, “Yes, it is.” I would educate people, but it took a long time to get people over that hump.
So at the time, Jake was making this whiskey called The Snowflake. You could only get it at the distillery. People would line up around the distillery for the release, like the night before, to get their spot. It was just so unique.
It was the first time I’d really encountered this concept of double and triple maturation, where you’re taking something and putting it in a finishing barrel. That’s not really part of the world of rum. Rum people tend to blend. They pick different spirits from different barrels, and they put them together to get those subtleties.
I’ve always been a single barrel rum. So for me, I wasn’t looking for a blend, or to create a blend. I wasn’t looking to put up different barrels of different styles, and then put them together. I discovered with Jake this concept of double maturation, triple maturation.
He was making The Snowflake where he took the whiskey out of a new whiskey barrel, which is what they have to do is put it in a new barrel. He aged it for three years or something in the new whiskey barrel, and then he would finish it in a Cabernet Franc, French oak barrel.
I’m not much of a whiskey fan, but I loved that stuff. I loved that Snowflake. I would beg him, as my geeky friend, to save me a bottle of it. Would he please? And, of course, he did. He was amazing that way. That was the beginning of the Exclusiva. So I wanted to take the Oro and age it a little longer, two and a half years, and then move it into a French oak barrel that previously held port.
Again, there are all these little nods that you see in the company to things so Montanya, or a Platino, Exclusiva – that Spanish is a nod to the fact that I discovered my rum tradition in Central America, in the Spanish-speaking regions of the world.
I am still more affiliated with those traditions. I think some of the more exciting rums right now are going to be coming out of Colombia. People are excited about Clairin from Haiti. I love it. I love whole juice, fresh juice made rum. But that’s not going to be my go-to. I tend to be really affiliated with these cane syrup rums, or whole cane rums. Or, rums that take the whole sugarcane juice, and cook it for a period of time, and then use the products of that cooking process.
That’s what I do. So I’m only 12% molasses. Most rum makers are 100% molasses. I use the percentage of molasses that’s in the original stock of sugarcane, and I use all the rest of it, too, but it’s had the water and fiber solids removed for me by my mill in Louisiana.
That was the Exclusiva. I wanted to move it into a cask of some sort. I had a winery in Colorado that I just loved, and that is hard for me to say because there are a lot of wineries in Colorado that I do not love, but this one winery called Sutcliffe is being made by this Brit in this red sandstone growing area, it was the most unusual. Again, like the most unusual winery in the world, and the wine is exceptional. It sells for $40 a bottle in Colorado. It’s very highly prized.
I went to them and said, “Can I get some barrels from your Cabernet Sauvignon? Your Port?” The port they do, they first age the cabernet, then age the port. They said sure, so I got started getting barrels from them, and started aging the Exclusiva.
I brought it out at three years, and I was home. Its finish was so dry and tannic, and it doesn’t have any added sugar except a minuscule, tiny touch of added honey from the bees around our distillery – nontraditional in the rum world. But I don’t care. I’ve been nontraditional in the rum world since day one.
That’s what you tasted the other day at the sketch event. That’s what I did a tasting of on this ship on the Thames on Thursday night, which was so fun. So that’s where that came from.
Then, I went to triple maturation with the Aniversaria, where I then took the Exclusiva, and put it into a bourbon cask at the end. This was a celebration of our 10th anniversary, so it was a nod to my other mentor, which is the guy who started Peach Street Distillers – very farm-connected, beautiful distillery in Palisade, Colorado. I don’t hear about them as much anymore, but they are one of the originals for me, making a bunch of different spirits. They made vodka, gin, and whiskey.
They also made brandies. They made this pear brandy that they put the bottles out in the orchard around the pears, grew the pears inside the bottles, then put the pear brandy in, so when you bought the pear brandy there was a full-grown pear inside the bottle. Amazing people.
They also mentored and taught me from a very early point. They also had a beautiful tasting room, which Jake Norris’s distillery did not have. They weren’t making craft cocktails yet. We were one of the first in Colorado, and in the United States, to have a craft cocktail program in our distillery. But they were making cocktails in their distillery, and I was like, “You can do that?”
So we had that from the very beginning, but before I actually opened the doors, I realized what was possible legally, what was possible with the regulatory environment in Colorado, which has been incredibly favorable to distillers. Because of the beer World, I think, and the wine world.
Then triple maturation came along in a bourbon cask from Peach Street, to say thank you in seriousness to all of my mentors for the tenth anniversary. Then, we sold it off for $100 a bottle very quickly. We had to do a second release of it, sold that off quickly, and donated a bunch of money to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory and the Women’s Distillery Guild.
The biological laboratory has the longest-running, consecutive, collected data on climate change in the world. And it happens to be in the valley in which I live.
The Women’s Distillery Guild was an organization that I founded to try to do a better job of providing support and mentorship to younger distillery founders coming up in the system, wanting to do what I did, but not really knowing how, or feeling like there were not enough women to admire in the process.
So we created this ability for the younger distillers to connect with the older distillers, and get mentored in different ways. That’s been incredibly satisfying. We just merged with Women of the Vine and Spirits, which is a New York-based industry group, and now it’s kind of blown up.
Susan: Usually at this point, I would tell you I just have to try some of that Aniversaria, let’s have a drink, but I really want you to touch on something that you brought up a little bit because I think it’s so important. It’s something that, in doing research on you, that I found is a big part of your distillery, which is sustainability.
I don’t want to leave you without talking about all the different things you do to make your distillery sustainable, that maybe other people who are listening might want to do as well. Could you tell me a little bit more about that or describe it?
Karen: Well, we’re the only Certified B Corp rum distillery in the world, and we’re only one of three certified distilleries in the world. The B Corp is the gold standard, I believe, and I think most people believe, of third party verification of environmental and social responsibility claims. You could say all day that you are sustainable, that you believe you care, but if you go deep, it’s just a marketing campaign. It’s not part of their deep ethos.
For me, I could go all the way back to my childhood on a pond in Maine, talking to my dad about the black duck and protecting it. He was very upset about the EPA telling him we couldn’t build our house close to a pond, and that was the beginning of me arguing with my dad over environmental stuff. He came a long way in his lifetime. He passed away twenty-two years ago, but he came a long way toward becoming an environmentalist.
I guess I came out of the womb that way or something, because it’s been important to me from the very beginning. It’s not something in Montanya that we decided, “Hey, let’s try to do this. It’s kind of trendy for people to care. Let’s get a certification.” It’s deeply ingrained in the business.
So, with the B Corp, they evaluate 200 different aspects of how you do business like where you bank, because banks invest in oil and gas exploration, and deforestation in Brazil, and things like that. They care about every single thing you do as a company.
Where does your trash go? How much solid waste is leaving your building? Where does your energy come from? Are you using GMO products? What is your packaging like? How is the paper that you make all your printed materials with? I could go on for a long time, but I would bore the heck out of everybody, I think. But it’s a really deep analysis.
First you go through the self analysis, and you answer all the 200 questions, and you provide some documentation, and then they audit you. In order to be certified, you get a random selection of all of those questions, and they go deeper with you, and they audit the physical evidence, whatever it is. They might even call your waste management, or they might call your power company or something to verify.
We did that. It took about six months. I hired an intern to shepherd the process with me because I had a lot of other things to do, and we got our B Corp certification. For me, it allows people not to take my word for it. If people go to our website, Montanyarum.com, they’ll find a list of all the daily practices of the company from the bar and restaurant, doing everything possible to reduce our waste.
We’re not zero waste yet. Actually, I’m worried that we’re never going to get to the zero waste point because I don’t trust the recycling world anymore. Recycling is unraveling. I could say, “Yes, I took my plastic to the recycling properly,” but I don’t know that it’s getting properly handled on the other side of that.
We do so many things. We buy all of our merchandise – our logo shirts and our hates are made from recycled material, or various different fabrics, sustainable fabrics, not just organic cotton that came over from China, but reused material. Same with our hats – the plastic closures and things are recycled plastic made from water bottles. It goes so deep.
When we went on our retreat this year, we had some new staff, and I forgot to tell them that they can’t use single-use cups, single-use lunch containers, and things like that, that the whole retreat was going to be zero waste. They got there, and I thought, “How are you going to get a coffee, if we’re on the road, if you didn’t bring a cup?” So we had to turn around and go get cups for everybody.
Now I carry these bins of reusable coffee cups or shot glasses. I’m working with a new rep in New York, and a new rep in New Jersey, I have to equip them so that they’re not using plastic cups. We do all zero waste events. I chose, just being here at RumFest, not to participate in events that had plastic tasting cups and things like that.
It’s not easy. I have to give up some opportunities. At Tales of the Cocktail in Louisiana, I do all my own events, but I can’t participate in other people’s because I can’t control what it entails, and it has a colossal amount of plastic involved, so I have to pull out and do my own events.
Susan: Let’s now pull out some of that rum, and toast to you, and what you’re doing for this environment because I’m getting emotional now.
Thanks so much to Karen for being on this show. If we have any female distillers out there, check out Women of the Vine & Spirits to find out more information, and to connect with others. If you want to know more about your business becoming certified, head to bcorporation.net. Join the club now.