Rum from the Rockies?

The story of Karen Hoskin and Montanya Distillers producing one of the country’s top craft varieties isn’t one of convention.

Henry Phillips

Talk of premium-quality rum generally pairs with fantasies of palm trees, white sand beaches, and the salty Caribbean breeze. Not so much a throwback ski town in the Colorado Rockies. Then again, the story of Karen Hoskin and Montanya Distillers producing one of the country’s top craft varieties isn’t one of convention anyway.

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As the tale goes, the alcohol-intolerant founder can only stomach rum. She discovered this vital fact on a multi-year visit to India — the other former British colony that, like the West Indies, imported loads of the sugary juice — before returning to the US and eventually making her own Central American-inspired spirit from her headquarters at nearly 9,000 feet in the small town of Crested Butte. This intersection of abnormality and chance has imparted its defining character on on Montanya’s polished Platino (light) and Oro (dark) rums.

While India first appears an unlikely place for such a discovery, history provides an easy explanation. Caribbean rum production traces back to Great Britain’s massive empire of colonies, tying together India and the former East Indies as well. A world apart, the two styles have diverged, with India favoring a darker, navy-style variety that’s heavily caramelized over its predominantly lighter-bodied and longer-aged contemporaries in the West. It was India’s preeminent brand, Old Monk, that first seduced Hoskin nearly 25 years ago, setting in motion a “love affair”, as she calls it, that led to further discovery of other styles closer to home, such as those in Guatemala. “The Indian connection has influenced my mixology life”, she says of her fondness for spices like cardamom and ginger in cocktails such as the Maharajah Martini. “But our distilling tradition is influenced more by Central America. Montanya is much more of a mountain rum.”

Mountain traditions involve aging at altitude and utilizing unrefined sugar cane over molasses. “We’re at 9,000 feet, so the temperatures fluctuate about 20 to 40 degrees per day”, Hoskin says of the aging process, which promotes robust vanilla and toffee notes in the Platino and Oro, respectively. “That creates a lot of kinetic action that happens naturally.” Aiding flavor enhancement are once-used American oak barrels Montanya obtains from Stranahan’s Whiskey a day after they’ve been emptied at the Denver-based distillery.

The fermented and distilled sugar maturing in those barrels comes from a sixth-generation grower in Louisiana, Lula Sugar Farm, ensuring a 100 percent raw (and USA-made) product that remains pure, and tastes like it. The lack of processing is apparent in the clean mouthfeel, particularly in the soft, smooth and elegant Platino. “It’s like the coffee model: we know where it’s coming from and who’s making it”, Hoskin says. “What we get is raw sugar that you could never get in the grocery store.”

A mountain address lends another advantage to the distilling process: pure, unfiltered water from snowmelt. “80 percent of what goes into the process and 60 percent of what goes into the bottle is water”, says Hoskin, contrasting nature’s bounty with treated, chlorinated city water, for example. Contaminants aren’t the only thing missing from Montanya’s mix. In a day and age when nearly every product’s ingredient list reads as a who’s-who of eyebrow-raising oddities (in rum, those might include glycerine and propylene glycol, neither of which are required for labels at the levels they’re introduced), Montanya keeps it simple: just sugar, Champagne yeast, honey and water.

That’s four ingredients total. And the honey, sourced from nearby Rocky Mountain bees and caramelized in-house, barely counts; it is introduced in trace amounts at bottling for subtle flavor, which explains the moderate sweetness and, in the Oro, takes a backseat to hints of smoke that Scotch fans could appreciate. The minimalist approach works because of Hoskin’s preference for all-copper stills and a traditional open-flame distilling method. An alternative to the more prevalent steam-heated technique, the open flame allows for greater control (albeit greater risk) over the amount of heat applied and can produce natural caramelization of the wash (the sugar-water-yeast combo) at the bottom of the pot still.

Stitching together vanilla, oak and slight honey notes is the Platino, a rich, silky spirit versatile enough to accentuate infusions or elevate classics like the mojito. It is actually aged first in those Stranahan’s Whiskey barrels, then once-used Oro barrels before a coconut-husk charcoal plate filtration process turns it crystal clear. The darker Oro lends itself to stronger cocktails like the Manhattan or Old Fashioned, and its smokiness combined with coffee, molasses and chocolate influences can stand alone over ice.

The high court of various drinking judges have recognized the painstaking efforts that go into each, doling out a dozen notable medals, from the Rum XP Gold at the Miami Rum Renaissance for Platino to a San Francisco World Spirits Competition Silver for Oro. Yet the fact that this improbable mountain spirit has quietly spread to 39 states and ships to the likes of Denmark, Ireland and Italy — a few countries who know a thing or two about consuming quality booze — shows the people have spoken too.

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