Based in Crested Butte, Montanya Distillers’ owner Karen Hoskin first began manifesting the idea for the small mountain rum company in a series of international travel epiphanies. She initially discovered her love of rum 25 years ago while traveling in India. Eighteen years later, she and husband Brice, co-owner of the distillery, were vacationing in Belize when they made the decision to open a rum distillery back home in the Colorado Rockies.
"It was literally like one minute 'yes, that's it!', the next minute was [the name], 'Montanya'... it means 'mountain' in...all kinds of different romance languages. We never even discussed any other name. Within probably a couple weeks of getting home [from Belize] we had started the process, and our doors were open on November 15th of that year. It was a pretty fast transition."
Karen, originally from rural Maine, operated her own graphic design company for 13 years before making the decision to invest her efforts into a project of her own. Combining her design skills and marketing experience with Brice’s business knowledge, the two prepared to make a big shift in their lives in order to create something all their own.
"I felt like I was spending all my time building other people's dream companies and their logos and their brand identities and their trade show booths, and their websites." Karen says.
In April of 2008, beginning as soon as they came back from vacation, Karen and Brice pursued distilling Montanya Rum in its first location in the small mountain town of Silverton. It was in an 800 sq ft turn of the century former brothel which sat off the beaten path on a side road. Despite the small, slightly hidden location, the distillery found its fans.
"The tasting room was so popular. It was only open from 4 pm to 7 pm four days a week and it would get shoulder to shoulder from skiers coming down from the mountain or folks coming in from Durango or whatever it happened to be. It was early in the days of craft cocktails, they were blowing people’s minds and it was just a really exciting time...since then, we've been in a total of three other distilling places."
After three years in Silverton, a few battles with the city government over permitting, and bittersweet goodbyes to close friends, the Hoskins and Montanya moved to Crested Butte in 2011where they have grown to over 5200 sq ft of operational space including the distillery and tasting room, and a bottling facility about a mile and a half down the road.
After being open only seven years, the company now distributes in 39 states and nine different countries.
"We've always had our eye on that, we've always wanted to be the 'American Rum', [we have] a bigger distribution plan I think than some distilleries have." Hoskin says.
Though her eyes are big, her sight remains small, and local.
"We like the idea of having something that was literally made in front of our customers, and so to be able to use raw ingredients that we know exactly where they come from and also come from the United States and that their supporting and sustaining U.S. jobs feels good to us as a company. So there's a lot of layers to the way we feel we are contributing to the economy."
For Karen and Brice, keeping a local perspective is synonymous with maintaining high quality. Knowing where and how ingredients are produced and sourced allows for better control of their rum, and thus, their brand and their business.
"I think there is more and more appreciation amongst consumers in the U.S. to know where things are made, who made them, what they're made from, that someone is paying attention to the details. That’s been a really important thing for me as a consumer when I buy things" Karen says.
It's the attention to details that keeps quality high and consistent. Everything matters from the temperature of the room, to what cleaning products are used to keep a tidy ship.
"There is a detail of just choosing ingredients and just taking care of the process. How we clean our stills; we never clean our still with anything besides citric acid. What we clean our building with matters, our air flow in the building matters, so we’re constantly feeding good oxygen into the fermentation. Elevation positively benefits every step of the process; people ask us all the time 'why are you making rum in the mountains, that's an island thing' and really there is a huge, long tradition of making mountain rum in the world." Karen explains.
Crested Butte's mountains play a big part in the distilling of the rum. Whereas many distillers use cooling jackets to help regulate the temperature of the stills, Karen and Brice rely heavily on the natural temperature fluctuation of the mountainous climate. The cooler nights and the warmer days help to keep the rum moving inside of the wood barrels where the rum ages and obtains some of its flavors.
"The wood in the barrel is where the magic is and so for us we have a cool evening temperature which pushes the rum out of the pores of the barrel, a warm daytime temp which opens the pores again which will bring new rum into the barrel pores so there is kinetic action in the barrel all the time."
The process is meticulous, but simple. With a single batch operation, and a four ingredient recipe, each barrel and every ingredient is important to the process.
"The number one ingredient that matters to us is water because 85 percent of what is in the process and 60 percent of what is in the bottle is just water." Hoskin explains, saying that many other distilleries use treated municipal waters, which can introduce undesirable elements. "Like chlorine, which is not flavorful, or water that is really flavorless.
“Our water is highly mineralized, much like the water that is highly celebrated in the regions of Scotland where their water percolates through stone and underground layers, and that contributes a lot of flavor."
Montanya’s water comes from a glacier marine located 350 feet beneath their bottling facility in Crested Butte.
"It's a distiller’s dream water." Hoskin beams.
Sugar, another one of the four main ingredients in the rum distilling process, can't be purchased from their mountainous backyard, but has been personally and meticulously chosen by Karen and Brice as close to home as possible. Whereas most sugar is imported from non-regulated international sites where pollutants can run rampant, Montanya uses cane sugar sourced in the United States, almost in their backyard, a few states away in Louisiana.
"We know exactly where it's coming from, how it's being grown, who's harvesting it; it's non-GMO... We watched it go into the mill which is where they press the sugar cane, and we watched them pull the first press of the cane." Hoskin explains. "...the first press, [is] the most flavorful and delicious. When it comes to us it still has the remnants of the solids and fibers from the cane...It is as unprocessed as you can get other than using the sugar cane juice itself."
Realizing the importance of first press sugar, untreated water, perfectly grown yeast, and effective temperatures, is the result of self-education. Karen is the brains behind design and marketing, and Brice takes care of the structural bones such as plumbing and electricity, while both are mad scientists for the art of distilling and creating finely tuned rum and cocktails.
"This is some of the oldest tradition in the world in some ways. It's like baking or making kombucha, it's about yeast and yeast vitality and the strength of your fermentation, and temperature, and managing temperature and managing heat under the still and choosing the still that is going to be the most conducive to the product that you’re trying to produce." Karen explains.
"It's not rocket science, it's a lot of attentiveness to the details along the way. And if you're not attentive, then something will go awry and you have potential to lose a whole batch, and if you lose a whole batch that's like eight thousand dollars of investment down the drain, literally, so we work really hard to be attentive, and I think that’s the most important characteristic. So being attentive and having a good palate for the final spirit, those are the two most important things. Anything else you can teach someone."
And they have. Brice and Karen have passed their knowledge onto their staff over the years, relinquishing control, and trusting their team to lead the way in helping distill and run the company.
In that way, Montanya has set a bar for other distilleries for consistently employing a predominantly female team, a rarity in the distilling world. Of their 11 employees, only two are men, one of whom is Brice.
"It's pretty rare in the distilling world to have a female distiller, much less someone who is such a key part of the company like Renee [the head distiller], and just in general we have a reputation for employing women in very highly responsible positions in Crested Butte and that's been fun because it's kind of a man's world…distilling is a man's world. A lot of dudes, even bartending is a guy's thing."
"They rock it," Hoskin says of the female crew.
Karen and Brice joke about how it's like having a family on top of their real family. On top of the business, Brice and Karen also juggle a home life with two teenage sons; one of whom currently works in the kitchen, prepping food from their vibrant menu, and both help in the bottling stages.
"It feels very much like a family business. Our son, Will, says he’s to take over the company someday so that's cool because I think it’s a tradition that's losing foothold in the United States a little bit."
But with anything else, boundaries must be set to maintain balance in life.
"We're learning to set limits." Brice says. "We actually just set a limit; after 7 pm we're going to not talk about business, and so if one of us does, and it's important then we do it for 5 minutes and then we're done. Our kids learned about this and they loved the idea." Brice says.
"We have to have good boundaries. But in the same way, we're also both having as much fun as we've ever had in running a business. This is our 5th business we've had, and we're still learning so much. We've taken more risk than we have had in our lives, and have had more reward than we've ever had. We have a lot of responsibility for people's welfare and well-being. If we don't succeed, we have 11 people who lose their jobs, and accountants, and cleaning crews, and landlords, and engineers, and lawyers that will all be affected, some days that gets heavy for sure, but most days it feels like it's working." Karen
With all the fun, and responsibilities, and with a family both at home and in the professional world, there is no sign of decline for the company anytime soon--at least no sign of going backwards or stopping.
"We just committed to at least five years in this location...so this building we feel will not change very much, we'll always have no more than two stills here, we'll have no more than 4 fermentation tanks...."
And in their bottling facility about a mile and a half down the road, there is room for yet more growth; more distilling and bottling capacity. In this way, they can maintain their small town feel in downtown Crested Butte, while still having room to provide for those of us unable to journey to one of their two tasting rooms in Western Colorado.