Chef News

Ryan Max Riley on Skiing, Spirits and Ski Bum Rum

Ryan Max Riley with a copper pot still at his Ski Bum Rum distillery.
Ryan Max Riley with a copper pot still at his Ski Bum Rum distillery. Ski Bum Rum
Rum might be an island spirit, but Ryan Max Riley was convinced it had a place in Colorado, so in 2013 he decided to ditch the academic life and open a rum distillery. He still had plenty to learn, though, digging into the spirit’s history as he searched for a way to create a product that would showcase the sugar at its base. He had to go back many years — rum today is made more like vodka — and while he hunted down the right formula, he secured an alembic still and a source for high-quality raw sugar. Then he built his Ski Bum Rum distillery in a Golden office park, where he began turning out silver rum, spiced rum and coconut rum in May of last year. Riley went for woodsy notes in all three, hoping to capture the essence of the Colorado outdoors that had been such a formative part of his childhood.

Here he shares his story, including why he wanted a hands-on profession, how he learned proper technique for an ancient style of still, and why Coloradans have an affinity for rum.

Ryan Max Riley: I grew up mostly in Colorado, in the mountains. I started skiing at a very young age; I was about eight. My father was a really good skier, and he taught me how to ski moguls. When I was eleven, I started skiing at Winter Park on the freestyle ski team. I was skiing moguls one day a week, and I got really into it, so I started doing it more and more. By the time I was in ninth grade, I convinced my principal to let me go to school one day a week, and I would take the Greyhound to Winter Park to ski the rest of the days. It wasn’t the ideal solution. So in tenth grade, my parents bought a condo in Winter Park, and I sort of lived there alone. That wasn’t quite ideal, either. The last two years of high school, I went to a ski school in Steamboat Springs. I got to ski every day — school got out at noon, and we’d hit the slopes with coaches. I competed all over the state for the last two years of high school. I made the U.S. Ski Team the year after I graduated and competed in the World Cup for seven years.

When I graduated from high school, I was also really interested in reading, philosophy, history, literature and topics in physics, like quantum mechanics. I checked out tons of books from the library. For a few years, I would ski with books in my pockets to read on the chairlifts. When I was about twenty, I started thinking about maybe going to college. I applied to Harvard and got in, which was really cool, because I didn’t know anyone else who’d gone to Harvard. I deferred for a little while to keep skiing — I didn’t want to retire, but I really wanted to take part in college life. Fortunately, I was still really young, and I figured out that I could probably do both. My first three years at Harvard, I was also on the World Cup. That made Harvard more exciting and skiing more interesting.

After Harvard, I thought I would be a professor. I went to Oxford and Yale for a master’s and I started on a Ph.D., but I left to open a distillery. I always wanted to make really high-quality things. I’m kind of medieval. I liked the apprenticeship system: You work at a craft for seven years under a master and become a journeyman until you produce a really fine work, and then you become a master. I’ve always wanted to be an artisan like that. I always wanted to work with what I’m making, and not have tons of employees between me and the product.

click to enlarge Ryan Max Riley tried to channel the scents and spirit of Colorado in his rums. - SKI BUM RUM
Ryan Max Riley tried to channel the scents and spirit of Colorado in his rums.
Ski Bum Rum
One of the things that relates to rum-making in all this is I learned how to do research, I learned how to dig up dusty old books. I think one of the reasons I’m pretty good at making rum is that I’m a pretty good scholar. I can teach myself all the techniques and recipes but can also discover and refine them. The way I make rum is really ancient. It could have been done exactly this way 100 or 150 years ago — a lot of the books I consulted were from that time period.

One of the ways my interest in literature, history and philosophy has impacted my rum-making is by helping me use history to figure out where really good sugar would come from and where really good distillation techniques would come from. Distillation began in Europe in the Middle Ages, and in the Iberian peninsula around 800 A.D. The Moors brought that with them and used an alembic — a really ancient style of pot still. It’s one that creates very flavorful spirits. Southern Spain and northern Portugal is where they’ve been making this type of still the longest, so I knew I’d find artisans there good at making an alembic. Scotch distilleries are the only other distilleries that use this kind of still. That’s what pointed me in the right direction for techniques for things like fill height and cut points. Not too long ago, rum-makers started following Bacardi’s lead and using a tall steel pot still, which strips out all flavor and aroma. That’s why Bacardi tastes like vodka. Almost all silver rum is made in a steel-column still and charcoal-filtered, and neither of those things are true of our rum. So I looked to the Scotch distilleries.

I wanted to make rum in part because I wanted to influence or shape alpine culture. I want to have a really noticeable impact on Colorado cuisine. I don’t want to ride waves or follow the lead; I want to create a new kind of rum that’s really different from the Caribbean rums. Rum seems pretty tropical because it comes from sugarcane and is so popular in the Caribbean, but it’s also really common in winter cocktails — it’s in eggnog, cider, hot chocolate. So counterintuitively, it can be really Coloradan. I think there’s a latent or unrecognized preference for rum in Colorado. I’m not creating that from scratch; I’m just drawing attention to it.

I grew up in the mountains, and I really remember the smells of the trees, flowers and soil — they don’t smell like other forests and flowers and trees. I built associations between those aromas and good experiences. When I smell those in food or drink — like in our tasting-room cocktail the spicy blackberry bramble, made with spiced rum, sage and blackberries — it’s like a walk through the woods in Colorado. Blackberries and sage make it woodsy, but the spiced rum is constructed to be as wintery and alpine-y as possible. That’s one of the most important things that differentiates my rums from the Caribbeans.

click to enlarge Coconut rum from Ski Bum Rum. - SKI BUM RUM
Coconut rum from Ski Bum Rum.
Ski Bum Rum
My silver rum is made from a really dark, rich sugar that I think smells like the woods — it’s very earthy. I wanted to make a rum with a robust brown-sugar flavor, but I didn’t want molasses or sugarcane. Sugarcane rum is grassy and herbal, and that didn’t seem very Colorado. Molasses is funky and Jamaican. Brown sugar is perfect for eggnog and hot chocolate. I also wanted a note of banana, and a little spice or pepper. The silver rum can be developed into spiced rum; I enhance the pepper in distillation by using a slightly lower cut, letting the rum go a little longer. I use peppercorn as the start of spiced rum to focus on that pepper note, and then cinnamon and clove. That pairing is quintessentially winter holiday. The thing people say most often without prompting is that it smells like Christmas. I like to create a rum with a lot of layers of complexity that work really, really well together.

I have vague plans to age rum. It takes a long time to make a good aged rum. It’s not like bourbon, where you can get a great one after two years. And those distillers act like that’s extremely painful! You can decrease the aging time with smaller barrels, but it’s hard to pull off. To make really great aged rum as a new distillery, you would either get really lucky with your first batch, or you take a century or two to figure it out. You ferment and distill differently depending on whether or not you’re going to age. If you put perfect silver rum in a barrel, it’s not going to be good. You need a spirit that’s a little off in just the right way, and you need to know how it will change in the barrel.

But I might end up as a professor. I’m kind of all over the board. I have a lot of interests — people do so many amazing things, and I want do all of them, too. I don’t want to pick one. I don’t want to be a specialization. It seems like a healthier way to live, and more interesting. I love to sculpt. I’m writing a novel, and spending a long time on it. It’s going to take me forever. I don’t want to spend all that time writing something and think it could be better.

Ski Bum Rum is at 331 Corporate Circle C, Golden; hours are noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Learn more at 970-401-2271 or

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk