The big interview: Karen Hoskin, Montanya Distillers
Karen Hoskin has turned Colorado’s Montanya Distillers into a premium rum powerhouse, while advocating for female leadership in the industry, and supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
As the owner and founder of Colorado’s Montanya Distillers, Karen Hoskin has seen her premium rum brand achieve success around the globe, and more recently launch online while she simultaneously uses the brand to tackle social issues closer to home.
Hoskin’s journey with rum began 34 years ago in Goa, India, after she sipped on a 1980s Old Monk rum. “It was so delicious,” she says. “And I began a love affair with the spirit that has lasted. Since then, I have travelled the world and tasted a lot of rums in a lot of places. It’s my personal obsession.”
Montanya Distillers opened its doors in 2008, and today offers four rums: Platina 1 Year Aged White Rum, Oro 1 Year Dark Rum, Exclusiva 3 Years Aged Rum, and Valentia 4 Years Aged Rum. Available in seven countries and 44 US states, the company has seen a flurry of activity in a range of markets – notably in the UK and Europe, says Hoskin.
“This is because those are such ‘rum populations’,” she explains, “like rum is better known and better understood in the UK and the EU than it is in the US.”
The brand has expanded its reach in the UK and the EU through distributor Skylark Spirits, with Italy and Poland appearing to be particularly big customers.
“There’s a great appreciation for premium rum [in the UK and EU]. In the US, that can be harder because we’re still in the process of educating the consumers about it.”
All the same, Montanya has seen successful sales in its home state of Colorado, continues Hoskin, as well as in New York, California, Illinois, and Florida. “Those have been some of our biggest growing markets,” she adds.
The brand capitalised on this success when it decided to take Montanya online in September 2022 with a direct‐to‐consumer website – the “biggest strategy of the past 12 months” for the business, Hoskin said.
“When the big brands are taking up so much of that real estate, it’s hard for small brands like mine to stay on the shelf in that competitive environment,” explains Hoskin. “So online has been just an incredibly effective way for us to reach our customers.”
The move has been “game changing”, according to Hoskin.
“It’s grown the brand on many levels. The biggest thing that I’ve done is an expansion of the distillery that resulted in increasing our rum production capacity by 10 times compared with before. And I brought that expansion fully online in September of 2022, which has changed everything for us, from being able to meet demand, to really being able to hone and cultivate everything that we love about making rum. We’re more capable now.”
The distillery expansion included the introduction of a new tasting room in January 2022, and ‘radically rethought systems’ that began operating in August. The project was completed in October 2022.
With the brand going from strength to strength, a door opened to a particularly exciting opportunity: the launch of a rum in partnership with Tennessee whiskey brand Uncle Nearest.
Expected to go live in early 2023, Montanya Fuerza rum has been aged for four years, finished in Uncle Nearest whiskey barrels, and bottled at 50% ABV.
Hoskin has found the experience of working with Uncle Nearest’s distillery especially poignant, given its founder Fawn Weaver’s work in increasing diversity in the industry.
“I feel like we have both worked really hard to break down some barriers in the industry,” says Hoskin.
“Fawn has supported Black ownership, and people of colour gaining an ownership presence. And then for me, I’ve been working for 15 years on gender, and breaking down some of the barriers for women participating as owners and distillers in the industry. So it’s really kind of uniting these two female founders to celebrate the beauty of what we make.”
Hoskin has spent her career advocating for female leadership in the industry, and is also the founder of The Women’s Distillery Guild, which is a part of membership organisation Women of the Vine and Spirits.
In 2019, Montanya secured a minority investment from US drinks company Constellation Brands, through its Focus on Female Founders programme. The programme aims to invest US$100 million in women‐led alcohol businesses over the next decade.
“While I’ve been in this business, I’ve learned that when we make visible the accomplishments of some others in the industry who’ve experienced barriers, we inspire the next generation of people, who later might think, ‘I could be an owner, I could be a distiller’. So, it’s really part of my personal campaign to make these people who are doing it visible.”
And while Hoskin notes that progress has definitely been made in the past five years with regards to diversity in the rum category, there is still a “long way to go” in terms of building ownership among women and people of colour, as well as “other diverse populations”.
She says: “Often mountain ski towns aren’t necessarily places that celebrate diversity. They are very white. They’re very wealthy in general. And we’ve wanted to really turn that on its head a bit.”
As a result, the distillery is largely focused on boosting interaction in its community, and allowing members of oppressed and minority groups to be heard.
From its collaboration with Black Lives Matter initiative The Melanin Mountain Project, to its supporting of local arts in the area, the brand is intent on building better ‘Jedi’ (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) practices in the community.
“We’ve done an event with book fairs to celebrate freedom of expression for The Melanin Mountain Project. We really support our local theatre and arts organisation, as well as our local ski centre that does a lot for kids. We also host gay coffee events every week at our tasting room, which brings our gay community together.”
Gay coffee week has been hosted for some time by the distillery, but the event became particularly important after a mass shooting took place at Club Q, an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs.
Since then, Montanya has striven to become a “community‐gathering space” for the group. “[The shooting] really alarmed a lot of people in our community and my staff, so we feel strongly about providing a safe space. It became extra important to us, not just for a social event but as a strong way for people to come together and process some grief and fear.”
The producer, which uses American‐grown ingredients to create its spirits, has also been successful in securing B Corp certification.
“The beauty of the B Corp is that it’s the gold standard of what sustainability actually looks like. And it’s audited, so you can’t just make empty claims and hope that no one comes by to see whether you’re actually doing these things,” she says.
With its recent expansion, global success and major strides in its sustainability goals, the future certainly appears to be a bright one for Montanya – but there is one product it will not be exploring any time soon: flavoured rums.
“From a commercial perspective, I ought to be making a flavoured or spiced rum because those sell and sell. But for almost 15 years, I have never added a single bit of sugar to my rum. My rum only has three ingredients: sugarcane, water, and yeast. Everybody talks about added sugar in rum and how that’s an adulteration. That’s a compromise. That’s not what we should be doing to serve the quality standards of rum.
“My flavoured or spiced rums would be so odd in the marketplace with no added sweetness. They probably wouldn’t succeed very well.”
Hoskin is intent with staying loyal to Montanya’s three ingredients, and the brand is cementing itself in the premium rum category.
“People are really starting to recognise that rum is as spectacular a spirit at the premium level as any other spirit in the world: Scotch whisky, Bourbon – anything.
“For a long time, there was some sense that rum was the working‐class spirit. I think we’re changing that presumption through a lot of effort. I get to decide what Montanya rum tastes like. And, luckily, there have been enough people out there who love it, so we’ve been able to sustain that all these years.”