Karen Hoskin, founder and owner of Montanya Distillers.

Changing the World, One Sip of Rum at a Time

PUBLISHED FEB 14, 2020 7 mins read

Changing the World, One Sip of Rum at a Time

PUBLISHED FEB 14, 2020 7 mins read


The Rum Queen of America opens up about women-run distilleries

During a trip to India in her junior year of college, Karen Hoskin was introduced to Old Monk, her very first experience with aged rum.

“I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would one day be diagnosed with Celiac disease. I simply knew that I couldn’t drink beer and most alcohols didn’t sit well. In rum, I found a delicious spirit that I could enjoy without feeling poorly,” explains Karen.

Since she was focused on a career in graphic design back in the states, it took almost two more decades for Karen’s love of rum to blossom into Montanya Distillers.

Managing her own web and graphic design firm after college fulfilled her entrepreneurial needs, but after 12 years of helping other companies build their brands, she wanted to grow her own.

“On vacation in Belize [in 2017], I decided I wanted to make rum—I'd always loved the spirit and wanted to see what I could accomplish,” says Karen. By the end of 2008, her and her husband, Brice, had learned to distill, outfitted a distillery, obtained permits, and opened Montanya Distillers.

Karen “had a feeling that the craft brewing trend would expand to spirits” and she couldn’t have been more right.

Running a sustainable, B-corp craft rum distillery in the mountains of Colorado doesn’t sound like an easy task to anyone, and that’s why it brings Owner and Founder, Karen Hoskin, so much joy.

“I get as much satisfaction out of work as I do out of recreation, and that’s part of why I live in the mountains,” says Karen. “I can work hard and enjoy it, and then have easy access to the outdoors where I love to play”.


The beginnings

Copper stills at Montanya Distillers.
Where the action happens at Montanya Distillers’ current location in Crested Butte, Colorado.

Predicting the start of the craft distillery movement was Karen’s first golden move.

The second was her goals of sustainable and healthy distilling. “We’re incredibly proud of our American-grown, non-GMO sugarcane that comes from a family co-op of farmers in Louisiana,” says Karen.

Their transparent distilling method, which used no added sugar was unheard of at the time and set the Montanya brand apart from others - and helped move the industry forward.

After opening their doors in Silverton in 2008, Karen and Brice moved the operation to Crested Butte, Colorado in 2011. At the time, they felt the local business community would be more receptive toward their vision.

They were right. Crested Butte welcomed the distillery with open arms and is still home to all the pieces of their operation. Today, they have three facilities totaling 8,500 square feet: the Distillery and Tasting Room on Elk Avenue in downtown Crested Butte, a bottling facility and barrel house two miles outside of town, and an office also on Elk Avenue. It’s been the perfect layout for growth and making the Montanya Distillers vision a reality.


The spirits themselves

A bottle of Exclusiva Rum by Montanya Distillers.
Montanya Distillers’ limited release Exclusiva Rum, which is aged for a total of three years.

Montanya Distillers’ limited release Exclusiva Rum, which is aged for a total of three years.

As a craft rum distillery, Colorado may seem like a peculiar choice for distilling rum - but this was a conscious decision for Montanya. “There’s actually a long tradition of distillers aging their rums in the mountains in places like Panama, Guatemala, and Colombia,” explained Karen.

“The high elevation causes fluctuations in temperature and pressure that cause rum to move in and out of the barrel more frequently as it ages, resulting in a smoother rum with more complex flavors.”

And if you’re wondering about the name “Montanya Distillers”, there’s a connection to the mountains there too.

“Montanya means mountain in Spanish and pays homage to both our location in Crested Butte, Colorado, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and to the mountain tradition of making rum that inspired our distillery,” offered Karen.

Every rum produced by Montanya Distillers finds its roots in Spanish, “as an ode to the Central and South American mountain distillers who came before us.”

The traditional aging of their rum is not the only unique part of their process. As Karen explains, “We also bottle our rums using pure mountain water from a snowmelt and spring-charged aquifer below our bottling facility. The water has no heavy metals yet is full of flavorful minerals, providing a unique ingredient that accounts for 60% of every bottle.”

“Most distillers have to filter their water so thoroughly that it contributes zero flavor to the final product—we’re grateful to live and distill in a location that offers us such a unique ingredient for our rums,” she elaborates.

The mountain water available in Crested Butte is so different in fact, that the boiling point of water there is 195°F instead of 212°F, lowering the temperature at which they are able to distill their rum, and therefore quickening the distilling process.


Sustainability and Equality

Karen Hoskins and her team bottling craft spirits by hand.
Karen and a team of female employees and volunteers bottling their Valentia Rum.

Location and process aren’t the only things that make Montanya Distillers stand out in the rum industry. Karen claims that the distillery is “always looking for ways to be better for the environment”, which is quite the understatement for a distillery in the top 10% of all B Corp companies in all impact areas.

From their 100% wind-powered facilities to labels printed with soy inks on FSC certified paper, Montanya is truly doing their part to change the world, one sip of rum at a time.

Another way Montanya differentiates themselves is Karen’s dedication to empowering women in a field that is traditionally male-dominated.

“At Montanya, our staff is about 60% female, and we have had women work in every part of the business: leadership, distilling, marketing and communications, culinary, front of house and back of house management, bartending, and serving, even driving forklifts. You name it, a woman has done it,” boasted Karen.

When asked about advice for someone looking to start a distillery, Karen replies, “Trust your intuition. From the beginning, I have had so many people—often men—tell me that I couldn't build a business the way I wanted. I couldn’t take care of the environment. I couldn’t take care of my staff and grow too,” continues Karen, “At every turn, I didn’t back down and the result is a company and product of which I am immensely proud”.

In addition to supporting and training women in her own distillery, Karen has also “made it a point to support women throughout the industry, including leading the Women in Distilling group as part of the Women of the Vine & Spirits. It has been so rewarding to watch more women become distillers, distillery owners and excel in the business!”


The significance of independent distilleries

Hand-numbered tags placed on every bottle of Montanya rum.
After hand numbering each individual bottle, tags are placed on each bottle of Montanya rum.

As the number of independent distilleries in America grows close to 2,000, Karen understands she is a part of a very precious and important industry.

“Independent distilleries are where change happens.”

“While tradition and history are important, these independent distillers can push the envelope in terms of flavor and how they do business, because they aren’t tied to a certain way of doing things. They get to create something new from scratch,” remarked Karen.

The founders and owners of these brands all bring their character and passion into their spirits, making them so much more unique than the spirits on your local liquor store shelves.

Before Karen ever distilled rum, she spent time as a hotshot wildland firefighter, and a tribal fusion belly dancer. In the early days at Montanya, Karen offers, “I was known for breathing fire using the hearts of our distillation batches”.

Karen is also currently working on recording an album of songs with a musician she has known much of her life.

“As you can tell, variety is the spice of my life!” exclaims Karen. The beauty of independent distilleries is in these stories- the ones of individuality, real-world experience, and genuine connections.

In 2008, Karen Hoskin knew she wanted to create an international rum brand, and now, with distribution in 44 states and 7 countries, she’s just getting started.

“Rum was popular in the early Americas and even used as a form of currency. As sugarcane farming transitioned to growing regions outside of the U.S rum declined. At the same time, the rum industry hasn’t always had the best reputation for its environmental practices, and deservedly so. It’s been empowering and rewarding to help rewrite those stories!”

“I would love to be known as a top American rum company that has reinvigorated the American rum tradition while proving that business can be a force for good.”

Recommended for you

Learn when to shake or stir a cocktail, why you should do one over the other, and most importantly: how to do it!
Shaken Or Stirred: When To Do What
Learn when to shake or stir a cocktail, why you should do one over the other, and most importantly: how to do it!
Barry Haneberg found success in the corporate world before establishing family-owned Virago Spirits alongside his brothers.
When Traditional Approaches Meet New World Creativity
Barry Haneberg found success in the corporate world before establishing family-owned Virago Spirits alongside his brothers.
Raymond Bunk is a police commander, retired firefighter and United States serviceman. He’s also one of the owner/operators at Nightside Distillery
Craft Spirits Born On The Waterfront
Raymond Bunk is a police commander, retired firefighter and United States serviceman. He’s also one of the owner/operators at Nightside Distillery