The American craft rum scene is blessed with several high profile women at the helm of the company. Having started Montanya Distillers eleven years ago, Karen Hoskin is legitimately a pioneer among them. I recently sat down with her in San Francisco, on the day before the 2019 California Rum Festival. Over the course of an hour, we had a fantastic and enlightening discussion.
We went deep on a number of topics, including the emerging identify of American Rum and what’s holding it back, why she makes a “low ester” rum, the challenges and benefits of making rum at high altitude as compared to the Caribbean, a deep dive into how Montanya’s source materials are made, the debates in the rum community about authenticity, how improved labelling may be better than categorization, and what Constellation Brand’s investment in Montanya means for her. Plus, a whole lot more!
With no word count dangling over our heads, Karen could really explain her thoughts in detail, rather than compressing everything into a one paragraph answer. While this interview may be a little longer than you’re used to, you’ll come away with a much deeper understanding of what Karen and Montanya are about.
Matt Pietrek: Is American rum forming a collective identity yet? Should it? Or is it too early to ask that question?
Karen Hoskin: It’s such a good question. I think that American rum is forming an identity for sure, whether it’s collective or not. There are those of us who are incredibly serious about rum, and we are making serious American rum. Not all makers are serious about rum. They are just filling out a portfolio of SKU’s.
They might be making it harder in some ways for American Rum’s identity because they are releasing lower quality liquid. But at the same time, maybe they’re making it easier for us because it allows consumers to become discerning.
Matt Pietrek: I think about this in the context of Jamaican rum which has a distinct identity, and people associate it with funkiness. Or Guyanese rum having a smoky characteristic, or Agricole Rhum having fresh cane juice character. American rum, to me at least, seems to be that everybody is doing their own thing. It’s got Ko Hana, it’s got…
Karen Hoskin: Privateer, and Maggie’s Farm, and Montanya and…
Matt Pietrek: Yeah, everybody doing their own thing. Will we ever have a defined American flavor profile? Or is that not a thing that’s necessary?
Karen Hoskin: It might be more about methods than actual flavor profile. I think you’re so right, Jamaican… I ordered a daiquiri last night and said I wanted it to be Jamaican funky. The bartender… I don’t even know what rum they used actually… but I knew what I was going to get in that glass. I don’t think that’s true with American rum. If you went into a bar and said, “I would like a daiquiri with American rum” it could come out with ester funk or it could come out with something really aged even though it’s light like our Platino. It could be anything.
Matt Pietrek: In your mind, what are the top one or two issues holding back American rum from broader acceptance and awareness?
Karen Hoskin: I think probably the two top things I think could hold American rum back is whether or not we’re taking the distilling tradition really seriously. If we have a particular type of still because we make whiskey, and whiskey is our thing, and then we say, “Hey. Let’s make a rum while we’re waiting for our whiskey to age.” Then I think there’s a good chance that you’ve got a rum that’s being made in a compromised situation, possibly by makers who don’t understand the complexities of sugar cane fermentation.
The still isn’t ideal, maybe they aren’t careful in the sourcing of the sugar cane products. They’re coming up with a compromised product in the end because they don’t consider themselves to be rum distillers.
I think that’s a big, big challenge for those of us who care deeply about every single aspect of the process. From what type of still we choose to where our sugarcane comes from, to where our proofing water comes from, to exactly how we’re fermenting and what yeast we’re using, to what barrel program we choose. In my work, every piece of this becomes our obsessive approach. We’re not making it because we’re waiting for something else to come out of the barrel.
Matt Pietrek: What is the most challenging technical aspect of rum making for you? Is it something like fermentation, distilling, aging or bonding? Or maybe something I haven’t named?
Karen Hoskin: For me, the most challenging piece relates to altitude. First, it is simply helping people understand that there’s a very long distinguished and beautiful tradition of making mountain rum. The second aspect is the really unique process at 9000 feet as it relates to fermentation, distilling and aging. The mountain tradition is not well-known in the US. It’s not even well-known in the world like the island tradition is known.
It’s been thirty-one years of rum fanaticism for me now. Visiting Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia and Panama and realizing that they use the mountains to their advantage in making rum was a huge a-ha moment for me, especially as someone who lives at 9000 feet in Colorado.
There are many techniques that are unique to high elevation distilling in the mountain tradition: whether it’s growing sugarcane at different longitude from what is typical; or taking barrels up to 7,000 feet in the mountains to age at higher pressure; or using water and snowmelt from mountain streams, or slowing fermentations in cooler temperatures or fluctuating the temperatures from day to night in the barrel room.
When you’re in the islands, your sugarcane is growing right there next to you sometimes; although not as often anymore as real estate costs rise in island nations. Water is often coming from rainwater, which has higher heavy metal content and reverse osmosis filtration, which removes the flavor characteristics of the water.
When I started distilling rum eleven years ago, nobody seemed to have a clue that there was a mountain tradition. Even Ron Zacapa and some of those original companies that were actually part of it weren’t telling that story very well. I’ve spent a lot of time rally helping people to understand that story and I am finding people are much savvier about it now.
Matt Pietrek: Your website mentions that your rums are low ester. Yet, among many enthusiasts, there’s a clamor for bolder, higher congener rums. On the surface, it might appear that you’re tacking in in the opposite direction. What are your thoughts on this?
Karen Hoskin: That’s my favorite question so far. Really in my world, it’s always about discernment and transparency. It’s helping people to discern what we are, versus what they may know or may be familiar with elsewhere. In the case of esters, when I first started making rum nobody in the US seemed to have a clue what an ester was. They didn’t know where it was produced in the process, how it was expressed in aging.
If I had begun to talk about esters in my rum back then, it would have just been Greek. Now that people are becoming familiar with the high ester rums, which are funkier, more Jamaican in style, it’s important for me to say to those people when you taste Montanya Rum, you’re not going to taste those characteristics. That’s not the profile that you’ll get. Not that that’s wrong or bad, it’s just that it’s one of the ways in which we’re different. Esters are just one type of congener and we veer toward others.
To me, it’s like saying your rum is distilled on a pot still or a column still. The flavor differences caused by that one choice are vast. I love high ester rums. It took me a little while to get excited about them but once I did, I became a serious fan. But that is not what I make now. I may make one someday and when I do, I would talk about the esters. It pleases me to no end that people are becoming savvy to that level of discernment about rum.
Matt Pietrek: Your website also mentions, “The wash in our stills boils at a lower temperature than at other rum distilleries.” I would imagine that it changes the boiling point of every compound including ethanol and the various esters and higher alcohols. What are the challenges of distilling at a higher altitude?
Karen Hoskin: I can much more easily speak to the benefits, because they are so many. But yes, I think there are some challenges too.
The first one being that we’re almost always in an environment of cold. The distillers in the Caribbean deal with an environment of warm, and if they want to make something warm, it is easier for them. If they’re heating water to put into the fermentation because it needs to be at 80 degrees when they start, their water’s probably 70 degrees coming out of their water source. I open up a tap out of my well, my water is like 33, 34, or sometimes 35 degrees. I could potentially have to heat that. I don’t, but only because of the sustainability modifications to our production process.
A lot of Caribbean distillers wort chill their fermentations. I don’t have to do that because the ambient temperatures where I am are really conducive to fermentation. There’s less input of energy into the distillation process in general because alcohol boils at a lower temperature at 9000 feet. I use a lot less energy input to make rum here than I would at sea level.
There’re so many elements of altitude that are conducive to the process. The first one is that we have lower oxygen accessible to our fermentation. The fermentation slows down. The hardest thing in controlling fermentation is keeping it from galloping from too much warmth.
We have a solar wall in our rack house. The temperatures in there fluctuate 20-30 degrees in a single day, all year round. This causes the liquid to move around in the barrel in a way it doesn’t at sea level. This means more access to wood, which is the magic of aging after all.
Matt Pietrek: Many cycles of expansion and contraction?
Karen Hoskin: Exactly. I verified this with the barrel experts that certain profiles of a barrel are activated at certain temperatures. One of the reasons rum is like rum, and whiskey and Scotch are more like whiskey and Scotch, because you’re activating different tannins and other phenolic compounds at different temperatures. In Scotland, they will only ever activate certain aspects of the barrel profile; their flavor profile is because of their temperatures.
In the Caribbean, they will only ever activate certain flavor profiles because they’re at the warmer end of that temperature spectrum during aging, more of the vanillin and sucrose we associate with rum.
In Crested Butte Colorado, I’m pretty much running the entire continuum from cool to warm, back and forth, so I’m getting some of the smoky elements of the wood that they would get at cooler temperatures as well as some of the vanillin and sucrose from the warmer temperatures. Part of what makes our rum rare and unusual is that it’s likely to have more smoky, bitter characteristics from the cooler times in the wood, and more sweet fruity characteristics from the warm times in the wood. I would say that evokes a more Mediterranean Amaro profile.
Matt Pietrek: Is there anything else you are doing in your distillery that makes your process unique?
We’re barreling at 75%, 76% ABV, which is higher than many rum makers do. We also distill over open flame instead of using steam jackets. I believe this causes caramelization in the still and produces exceptional flavor.
We don’t do a stripping run, which many makers use to remove water from the wash and start their spirit run from a higher ABV. I recently tried a stripping run and found that the molecules of ethanol were much harder to separate in the end, maybe an altitude contribution? When I tasted the finished spirits versus what we have made since starting Montanya, I could taste heads and couldn’t separate them out. So many different aspects of the flavor were not acceptable to me. I decided instead to order a new 500 gallon copper pot still with a custom made alembic head and lentil. Thus, still no stripping run at Montanya.
Matt Pietrek: You source your sugarcane from Louisiana. In what form does it come to you? And are there challenges associated with that?
Karen Hoskin: We take every single part of that original sugarcane stalk except the fibrous solids and the water. It’s separated in the heating and centrifuging process into molasses and raw cane, both completely unrefined.
Some people would look at that raw cane then they think, “Oh Brown Sugar” “Oh Turbinado,” or, “Oh ECJ,”. It’s none of the above. It’s basically a really unrefined crystallized sugarcane juice. It still has a lot of bagasse in it. It has never been to the refinery where it would go into these floating tanks with flocculants and different chemical processing that would make it all uniform, similar shapes of crystals. Different impurities would float out and be swept away. That actually takes a lot of the natural flavor out of it, which is really conducive to a good rum in a pot still with an open flame, which is what we do. We don’t want any kind of molasses or raw cane that has ever been through refining.
The good news is that our growers grow a lot of sugarcane, and they mill a lot of sugarcane. We’re not going to outgrow them any time soon. I love a lot of these really boutique producers who grow their own sugarcane, but it’s hard to scale. We are scalable with our current partnership. They grow beautiful, non GMO American sugarcane that is not burned in the fields. It’s also not harvested by humans, so we are avoiding those environmental and social impacts that plague some of our rum making peers.
Also, when it’s harvested into billets, we’re able to pull the first press off. The first press of the cane is like extra virgin olive oil is to regular olive oil. It’s where I think most of the flavor of the entire press is. By the time you get to that 5th or 6th press, you’ve a lot of grassy Agricole notes that we don’t take.
Matt Pietrek: The idea is that you crush the cane, and the water is removed. Is it a heating process to remove the water?
Karen Hoskin: This process is to remove water and also to stave off fermentation, which would otherwise start immediately. The boilers at our mill are fired by bagasse, and all the electricity is produced by bagasse. It is a completely biomass-operated mill.
They take that heated sugarcane juice and put it into these vacuum tanks. Inside the vacuum tanks, the next process is a lot like making yogurt. In our mill, specialized Honduran experts are responsible for the crystallization process. It can fail colossally. These Hondurans know how to introduce the old crystallized sugarcane to the new pre-crystallized sugarcane. It’s incredibly cool to watch.
At the end of that process, you’ve got this substance that looks a lot like chocolate. It’s beautiful and tastes amazing, but it’s about 12% unrefined molasses. Then you put it into a centrifuge spin it at high speed, the molasses has a different specific gravity from the raw cane crystals, so the molasses goes one way and the raw cane crystals go another way.
At the end, you have two products: crystallized cane and molasses, most everything that was in the plant originally but separated.
The molasses luckily is harder to ferment, so it gets to us before any wild fermentation starts. We had our first wild fermented molasses this summer — the first since we started — because it was such a weird year. Global climate change?
Matt Pietrek: It’s an unusual molasses then. Not made in a traditional way that the molasses would be made?
Karen Hoskin: Mainly because it is entirely unrefined.
Matt Pietrek: I know in the past that Maggie Campbell has used an unrefined brown sugar as the source for some of her rums. [Maggie now says they use 100% molasses.]
Karen Hoskin: It is very common in the US. Much of the brown sugar available in the US is actually refined white sugar painted over with refined molasses. The refining status of sugar cane is actually a really important conversation in rum. There is absolutely no benefit to rum in the refining process, and I think there is great disadvantage. But it is hard to find unrefined sugar cane products unless you work with a smaller mill.
Matt Pietrek: Does this mean that your distilling season mirrors the harvesting season? Are their times even when you can’t distill because you don’t have your molasses?
Karen Hoskin: It doesn’t have to, because the company that we work with makes tremendous amounts of both of these products and keeps them stable for us. They start their harvest around October 1st and then they finish it usually right before Christmas. Although last year it went all the way through the month of January. It was the hardest harvest they’d ever had.
They begin the milling process immediately as the cane comes out of the field.
The crystallized sugarcane will last forever as long as it doesn’t get wet. We take it four tons at a time in increments across the year.
The same is true with the molasses. As long as it’s not exposed to open oxygen or wild yeast, there is no fermentation. Like honey, it’s not perishable if it is not fermenting. They hold it for us and ship it to us in IBC totes throughout the year.
Matt Pietrek: It sounds like they manage to do very minimal processing on it to separate things out into stable compounds and then you take them as you need them.
Karen Hoskin: Exactly. We distill every week, all-year-round. Unlike a lot of distillers; I think many people take the summer off or whatever.
Matt Pietrek: As high end rum has gained fans, we’re seeing more polarization in online forums, with some people calling out brands and producers that they deem insufficiently authentic and/or gateway rums. By adding even a tiny bit of caramelized honey to some of your rums, you would seem to fall in those crosshairs. What are your thoughts on this? Both in terms of polarization in general, and more specifically how it might apply to you?
Karen Hoskin: Okay, my new favorite question. You are hitting all my passion points.
Yes, I think you’re right. I have fallen in the crosshairs because I add a tiny bit of honey at bottling time. When I began making rum in 2008, nobody was yet talking about dosage or sweetening in rum. So many rums were heavily sweetened and ours was distinctly not sweet. We became known for that, for having unsweet rums that were drier on the finish. As time has gone on, I’ve been really excited by the global conversation about sweetening and what people are doing with added sugar. I have been a vocal advocate of transparency since day one.
I’ve never once pretended we don’t do a tiny, tiny .0036 percent addition of caramelized honey. I knew going in that it was non-traditional. Although it really depends on where you are in the world.
Matt Pietrek: That is – your particular tradition.
Karen Hoskin: Right. If you’re in the Canary Islands, Ron Miel is totally common. I know there’s a long time tradition in Cognac of using aged honey. There’s lots of good history of honey being used in tiny quantities to bring out certain characteristics of distilled spirits. That was my goal from early in the days, to veer away from sweet rum, never add sugar, and distinguish our flavor profile with a microscopic bit of local honey. At some point, it was just Montanya Rum. I’ll never forget Martin Cate saying to me when he was judging Montanya Rum: “I just always know that it’s Montanya Rum.” He could taste the sweet and acidic balance of the honey.
It became part of our flavor profile. For me now, because all of a sudden it’s this trendy conversation to talk about whether you have sugar sweetening or caramel sweetening or coloring or anything like that in your rum; I don’t want to just change that because I want to be trendy, or because I want to follow somebody else’s concept of what’s okay and not okay. It is one of the benefits of owning your own company, you get to decide.
If I drop the honey out, it would probably change the overall
profile of Montanya Rum that so many of our customers have come to love. They, for the most part, are not on the
online forums. That conversation is happening among people who are deeply
involved in rum. My main customers are not having that conversation. They just
want to drink what they like.
The second thing about that conversation is that I stepped onto the continuum of rum with Old Monk, which anybody will tell you is pretty over-sweetened and over-caramelized, over-colored and whatever. At the time when I was 20 years old, I didn’t care. I was drinking rum for the first time and I loved it. It led to a 30 year love affair with the spirit. I don’t choose it now, but what if I had never tasted it? Would I like rum now?
I’m an advocate of getting people excited about rum wherever their palate is, and then cultivating their discernment over time. Eventually, they will end up liking something different, not necessarily the same rum as on the day they began the journey. I don’t want to alienate them, wherever they begin, because to me part of the reason I’ve gotten involved in rum at all was because it felt so welcoming and lovely to me, and not sanctimonious.
Matt Pietrek: I think it’s great that the conversations are out there, and people are talking more about it, and that consumers are more educated about rum. They’re asking questions. But it also feels like there’s a certain contingent that seems to be pushing towards… you could say, a production profile very similar to Bourbon, or Scotch whisky. It can feel to some that they’re dismissing anybody who does anything different. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Karen Hoskin: I would never say that there’s one element that characterizes the flavor of rum. It’s not ester or no ester, pot distilled or column, sweetened or not sweetened. Rum is the combination of these elements. It matters where your sugarcane comes from, such as the demerara rums, or whether you start with fresh juice like the agricoles. The only thing we all share is sugar cane as the base.
Because I was enamored with the Central and South American traditions of rum long before I ever really felt anything for the Caribbean tradition, it’s always been this really complicated interesting thing for me. I loved Ron Zacapa XO for a long time, and now that is terribly uncool in the online forums. It makes me tear my hair out sometimes.
I love the fact that people are talking about it, that they’re becoming educated, and realizing how complicated rum can be. That there are different styles, different sugarcane sources. There’s just so much to consider, so many questions to ask.
I am an incessant advocate of radical transparency and sharing openly with my customers detailed and accurate information about what we do and who we are. That to me is the most important thing.
I have no patience for smoke screens and dodgy information. The rest of it, that complexity of it – that just makes me happy.
Matt Pietrek: What changes would you like to see from the TTB or other government agencies regarding regulations?
Karen Hoskin: This comes up a lot because there’s such a movement right now, worldwide. There are movements to make things geographically local, to tie traditions to regions. There are lots of movements right now in rum.
My feeling about rum and the TTB is I wish that they were twelve questions we all had to answer. In order to be called rum, you had to say where your sugarcane comes from; what kind of still you’re using; what if any additives you may be putting in after distillation; what kind of barrel are you using; where did the barrel come from, how long are you aging. Is it secondary or primary like a new barrel? Has it already aged something else? How long does it stay in the barrel? Is it blended? Is there a solera method used? What source did your proofing water come from?
Those are the questions that should be answered. Then, if you are interested in a rum, you could pop online and see the answers to all those questions. It allows us to compare better.
I get thrown in the weirdest categories. My four year aged rum is 100% four years aged in a relatively fresh secondary whiskey barrel, no solera. To have it put in a category with a rum that was aged in a barrel that’s been aging rum for 50 years, in the Caribbean at sea level, using the solera method… It’s just not really the same thing. But it happens all the time.
Matt Pietrek: I’ve been pushing a similar proposal. Because for any attempt to categorize in some way, you’re going to slice in a way that doesn’t make sense.
So if we can all agree to a basic set of metrics — “Here are the ‘N’ things that we must describe” — and then you put that on the label. Sure, it’s not necessarily readily applicable to the average consumer. But for people who need to know the information — if we’re judging a competition or something — this is all information that we can use to have an apples-to-apples comparison.
Karen Hoskin: Exactly. If you add the question of “Do you put any sugar products in after distillation or do you not?” Then you get at that whole discussion with one question, as opposed to with judgment, or with any sort of good, bad, or ugly. It’s just yes or no.
Then you can even report what the percentages of sweetening is in your final liquid. Someone published that list testing all the rums and how much sugar products they had added. That could change the entire game right there. If we just self-reported that, it would be miraculous.
Matt Pietrek: What Caribbean rum producers do you particularly admire for their rums?
Karen Hoskin: For their rums. That is a well worded question. I am a Foursquare fan. I love the Zinfandel cask aged. I think it’s one of my favorite rums ever of all time.
Early in my career, I was really influenced by Lorena Vasquez of Ron Zacapa as the first woman I ever encountered who was involved in the rum business. I met her in London two years into starting a rum distillery. That was life changing for me. I may have a real affinity for that product because “Wow, female blender, I’ve never met one before.” Same with Joy Spence of Appleton, although I have never met her. I had very few people to look up to early on.
I really love Worthy Park. I think it’s lovely, but maybe I love it because I think Zan Kong is just great. It’s always hard to know how to separate the people from the thing.
I’ve tasted some really bad rum, but I might love the people who make it. I can get irritated with the makers of some of my favorites.
Matt Pietrek: Are there any smaller distilleries either Caribbean or elsewhere who fly under the radar? That you think are really doing great stuff?
Karen Hoskin: I think there are some rum distillers in Venezuela that are probably not getting much attention, Pampero… There are some really small boutique producers that are hard to find that I love in Medellin, Colombia.
Matt Pietrek: I may have come across one. Was one of them Pedro Mandinga from Panama?
Karen Hoskin: I love Mandinga. But again, I do a lot of work with their primary brand ambassador in NY. Do I love Mandinga? Or do I love the people who represent the brans? It can be hard to sort out.
Matt Pietrek: What are the biggest misperceptions you see regarding rum?
Karen Hoskin: The thing I hear the most is that people had a bad experience in college, and they think that whatever it was that they drank in college was really rum. I spend a lot of time telling people that the Malibu they drank? I don’t really think of that as rum.
Some of those spiced rums that are mass factory produced, typically people are putting them in with a coke. You’ll probably get a bad reaction to the coke as much as the rum itself. Try drinking a good rum with seltzer water and lime, then see how you feel the next day. The misperception is that whatever they experienced while over-consuming in college has anything to do with the category of rum.
The second misperception is that rum is just not as good as whiskey or bourbon, scotch, rye, whatever. The thing I’ve come to know over the years is that my rums are often aged longer and made in every way with as much care and consideration as any whiskey maker that I know.
We have this misperception that rum is the poor man’s spirit, or the blue collar spirit, and that the white collar high end classy spirits are not rums. I think that’s a misconception that we’re all working really hard to shift. I say that really good rum will stand head to head in quality of process, quality of ingredients, quality of final outcome, to any good bourbon, rye, scotch. Obviously, some things are being aged way longer, but with rum that doesn’t always mean a better outcome.
Matt Pietrek: What are biggest misrepresentations you see being made in rum?
Karen Hoskin: I’ve been thinking a lot about this because I speak publicly a lot about sustainability in rum. I think that there’s no shared definition internationally of what environmental and social responsibility looks like. There are a lot of companies out there that are recognizing that sustainability is the topic du jour, so they want on the bandwagon.
Many companies are newly recognizing sustainability as a marketing strategy, even if they don’t care about it internally. Sometimes a company is responding to near shutdown by the EPA by touting lots of environmental changes and upgrades.
With Montanya, we’ve been doing so many daily actions of sustainability for the whole time that we don’t even really think about it anymore. It’s deeply embedded in the DNA of the company. But going on to become B Corp-certified was a big move for us. A very well respected third party comes in and verifies our claims, that was huge for us. I think environmental claims should all be audited.
The other misrepresentation that I see is craft washing. It’s like big companies that are making a huge amount of liquid, doing things to try to convince the world that they’re a craft process spirit, or that they’re making something in a way that is comparable to the way I make my spirits. The big brands are declining, so they hope making something that appears to be craft will grab back their lost market share.
Matt Pietrek: You recently took an investment from Constellation Brands. What’s the single biggest change you expect this investment will be to you? For example, more capacity, or increased marketing or wider distribution, or something I didn’t even mention? I’m sure you’ll do many things, but which one do you think is the biggest thing that will come from it?
Karen Hoskin: I feel like for eleven years I had a choke chain on. I’ve been right at the edge, always, of the amount of money in the bank, at times pushing to the verge of insolvency to grow the company. I have always felt choked by the need for capital.
Women business owners get so little of the investment capital in the US. I worried whether I could keep my shoulder to this brutal wheel long enough, with very little investment. The biggest thing I feel happened when we signed on the dotted line with Constellation was that I opened this door into this other world where it is filled with experts in every category from brand building to market analysis, distribution, legal and banking, payroll and HR. Everything! And they’re all faced toward me saying, “How can we help?”
I’ve never felt that way in business before. It is empowering because it makes me feel less like everything is on my shoulders.
It’s amazing what it feels like to have help. I didn’t even know how to do a market survey. I was thinking about a new glass bottle and whether making that change could pencil out through all of the layers of the financial and market analysis. Before, I would just be “New bottle! Here we go!” But now I’m able to participate in a more professional process that is really satisfying.