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Ask the bartender: Meet Karen Hoskin of Montanya Distillers

Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with almost 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can find him here most weeks, where he'll answer your questions. But right now, he wants to introduce you to one of the distillers featured in the Colorado Cocktail Contest.

We've already profiled many of the bartenders competing in the Colorado Cocktail Project, with its mission of creating the official Colorado Cocktail. Now we're profiling the Colorado distillers whose spirits will be featured June 26-27 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.

Meet Karen Hoskin, president and co-founder of Montanya Distillers:

Karen Hoskin Montanya Distillers

Distilling since: 2008

How and when did you get into distilling?

Our 23-year love affair with rum led us into the world of distilling. It began for me with Old Monk rum on a beach in Goa, India, in 1988. This watershed moment was the dawning that rum and my own body chemistry had real synergy. (I actually believe that everyone's body has a unique chemistry and is best suited to some spirits and not others.) Rum gave me no headache, no hangover, no blahs the next day. I may have been only eighteen then, but I knew I had discovered something sacred among the temples and gompas of India.

In 2008, well into twenty years of sharing our love of rum, Brice and I were sitting on a beach in Belize when the idea of our own distillery really began to ferment. On that same trip, we crossed the border into Guatemala and discovered Ron Zacapa's process of aging rum at high altitudes in the mountains (at 7000 feet). By the time we left Guatemala, we had hatched the plan for Montanya (which means mountain in Spanish). Then came the humbling task of learning to make a great rum.

What products do you currently offer?

Two rums: Montanya Oro (Dark) and Montanya Platino (Light)

What is your favorite spirit to make? Why?

Rum, of course. There is real art during distillation in selecting which parts of the "cuts" to include in the batch to give it its true flavor. There is also art in deciding how long to leave the rum aging in the barrel. Both Montanya rums are aged and every bottle we produce is a single barrel product aged in a fresh, wet Stranahan's whiskey barrel. We have to be careful not to pick up too much of the whiskey and to preserve the essence of the rum. Yet there is magic in those barrels when they meet our rum.

Any exciting things you are working on for the future?

World domination? Participation in Tales of the Cocktail's first Micro Distillers event in New Orleans! One of only 22 distillers. Perhaps an organic rum, if we can source a (decent) domestic organically grown cane.

What is your outlook on the Colorado distilling scene? Where is it headed and why?

Colorado is a great place to be a distiller. I think the micro-brew beers really paved the way for us in establishing how Coloradans think about locally made beverages. Legislation has really paved the way for vibrant tasting rooms and diverse offerings. That said, like the beer world, there will likely be a 'die-back' in the future as many distillers come on line and not all stay strong. We love being part of a growing industry and don't see it as competition at all.

What makes your product distinctly Colorado?

Fantastic mountain snow-melt and spring water, aging at high altitude (we are the highest altitude rum distillery in the world), perfect temperatures for fermentation without using energy to chill, the ability to re-use the main by-product of distilling (heat!) because we value it in our mountain climate, the efficiency of pulling the warmed water off our condenser to start our fermentations without having to warm it to 80 degrees. Proximity to Stranahan's freshly-decanted whiskey barrels (we are much closer to our barrels than Caribbean distillers). Delicious cocktails made in our Tasting Room with fresh Colorado ingredients that perfectly complement our rum. Very few rum distillers are close to their cane, and we are actually just as close to Hawaiian cane as most Caribbean distillers are to the Brazilian and Paraguayan/Uruguayan supplies they use.

When people think of rum they don't think of a mountain town like Silverton. How has the reaction been because of this?

Some people are slow to come around to the idea, but it hasn't really slowed us down at all. The skeptics need only taste Montanya rum to understand what we know -- that rum is perfectly well-suited to the mountains of Colorado! One of the most fun things for us has been seeing the reaction of judges in blind tastings in San Francisco, Miami and Chicago as they learn they just awarded a gold medal to a Colorado mountain rum. These are the top rum aficionados in the world! They cut their teeth on rums from the most established and prominent rum distillers. And yet they love Montanya! That is a vote of confidence for us over and over (twelve medals so far, six of them gold and six silver).

We often say that 85 percent of the ingredient base of rum (and any spirit, really) is water. We are close to the best water in the world. Cane is actually a minor ingredient compared to water.

You seem to embrace the Tiki bar culture. What is your favorite part of Tiki culture?

What we love about Tiki culture is that it is so unpretentious and delightfully playful!

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We think (or at least we hope) Tiki fits the Montanya identity perfectly. The cocktail world can get a little, dare we say, stuffy? Some of the best cocktail bars in the world (Smuggler's Cove in San Francisco, Cien Fuegos and Death & Company in New York, Cottons in London) have revived the Tiki culture with the kind of attention and outrageous deliciousness that the tradition deserves. High quality rums and fresh-squeezed juices, combined with spicy and complex flavors, are the alchemy of a great Tiki cocktail, not carbs and canned ingredients. Rum, as it comes off the still, has no carbs at all! The carbs are added by many distillers after the distillation process, usually in the form of caramelized molasses. The higher the quality of the rum, the fewer carbs are in it. Montanya doesn't use caramelized molasses, which we find to be cloyingly sweet. We add a tiny touch of caramelized mountain honey from the Rocky Mountains after distillation at bottling, which is a better fit for the flavor profile we are seeking. And it keeps the carbs and glycemic index of Montanya rums to a minimum.

The other thing we love about Tiki is escapism. What fun to step out of your reality for a moment and be somewhere else, whether you are in the mountains of Colorado or on a busy streetside in Denver. The ski world has long had a love affair with beach cocktails... something about the impossible contrast? So we think Tiki is a great fit for a snowy night in the mountains of Colorado or a convention on the beach in San Diego. And we definitely think (and Beach Bum Berry, Tiki Master, agrees!) that any Tiki cocktail is better with Montanya rums.

And we can't forget that Tiki lovers are rum lovers, so they are our tribe!

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