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Karen Hoskin, owner of Montanya Distillers, presents Valentia in the company's tasting room on Elk Avenue in Crested Butte. Valentia, a Spanish word for courage, was created and distilled by women. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CRESTED BUTTE — Spirits were running high recently at a nondescript building in an industrial park south of Crested Butte where a dozen women squeezed in between ton-sized bags of sugar and walls of oak barrels for what could only be called a working celebration. It had to do with rum.

The women were bottling Valentia, a new rum that represents another milestone for a distillery that already has the distinction of being the first high-altitude rum-making operation in the country. In this new first, Montanya Distillers is releasing a rum envisioned, created, handled and managed entirely by women. 

It was all done from a small-town outpost tucked away from the wide world of a distilling industry dominated by men.

This distilling feat, cheered by other female distillers around the country, began four years ago when Montanya’s female distiller, Renee Newton, combined cane sugar, molasses and spring water in a giant copper distilling pot. She nurtured it through its fermentation, its aging in oak whiskey barrels, and finally its transfer to rye whiskey casks for three months of flavor finishing.  

At Montanya, which is majority owned by Karen Hoskin, women drove the forklifts to move the rum casks. They bottled and boxed the product. They came up with the name – Valentia, a Spanish word meaning courage, bravery and grit. They created and are carrying out the marketing campaign for the new rum. Women tended bar at a jammed party to introduce the rum at Montanya’s tasting room on Elk Avenue. Women came up with cocktail recipes to highlight the new spirit.

Karen Hoskin, owner of Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte, Colorado moves some boxes with a front end loader while on a tour of Montanya Distillery. Montanya’s newest spirit, a rum called Valentia, was made, moved and marketed by women. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For Hoskin, Valentia represents more than just another top-shelf rum. It is a major step in her long effort to open more doors to women in craft distilling. The rum is a symbol of walking the walk after years of talking the talk about gender inequality in the industry.

“I know it makes us unique as a company,” Hoskin said. “It lets us show how many opportunities we have provided for women.”

Deborah Brenner, founder and CEO of the national Women of the Vine & Spirits organization that includes 165 corporate and around 5,000 individual members, said this all-female rum is much more than a marketing ploy.

“The incredible thing about it is the visibility that comes with it,” Brenner said. “Most consumers don’t see the female role models in this industry. This ground-to-glass effort really is an inspiration for other women.”

Women and Prohibition

To understand why an all-female crew turning out a high-end rum is a big deal, it is necessary to jump back nearly a century.

Ax-wielding women were smashing up taverns then. They were the driving force behind Prohibition. Those 1920 activists asserted that liquor was the devil’s drink. It led to societal degeneration and wrecked homes.

It took a long time for the liquor industry to forgive that assault on spirits and to not view women as anything more than an impediment to liquor sales. Women were rarely found anywhere near distilling pots throughout the 1900s. (Miss Kitty in the old TV show “Gunsmoke” was an outlier.) In fact, women weren’t visible in many facets of the liquor world – behind the bar or in the corporate offices – until well after the turn of the last century.

It wasn’t just that women weren’t welcome behind bars. A 1948 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prevented women from tending bar in cities bigger than 50,000 people. That ruling stood for more than two decades. The highest visibility women would have in relation to liquor for decades was bikini-clad babes draped on beer chugging hunks on billboards and in TV ads.

Tons of unrefined cane sugar, sourced from U.S. growers, is stored inside Montanya Distillers warehouse near Crested Butte. It’s a key ingredient in the award winning rums produced there. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Montanya front house manager and bartender Allysa McGill says she still gets condescending comments from some male patrons at the tasting room that also serves as a bar and restaurant.

“They will comment on me being a bartender and how many women are here,” she says. “They will say something like, ‘Oh, look at you behind the bar.’” 

When Hoskin got into the distilling business a dozen years ago at a ramshackle former brothel in Silverton, women had not yet blazed trails in the craft distillery industry.  She would go to distilling conferences and be ignored by the male makers of everything from stills to corks. She was not only an oddity as a woman; she was running a company in high-elevation Colorado – not exactly a hotbed for rum making. Her company was dedicated to green practices, to using American-grown cane sugar and to promoting diversity within the industry on top of making rum – also not important factors for the bigwigs of distilling.

Breaking open a conversation

Karen and her husband, Bryce Hoskin, had decided to make rum after vacationing in the tropics. She quickly took on the lead role in their rum business while Bryce focused on running his Mountain Boy Sled company.

Even then, Hoskin had dreams of growing Montanya rum into an international brand. To help make that happen, the Hoskins decided in 2011 to move their family and their rum operation to Crested Butte, where they could have better visibility and a more receptive business community.

Boxes sit ready to be filled with bottles of Montanya Distillers rums. The distiller ships to 44 states and seven countries. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Today, Montanya ships rum to 44 states and seven countries. It has won many major awards in the spirits world, including scads of gold and double-gold medals and Best in Class designations almost since the day it opened. It has been named Craft Distillery of the Year, and its rums have earned a World Rum Award and standing in the top 10 Best American Craft Rums. Montanya rum was named USA Rum of the Year at the Berlin International Spirits Competition.

While turning out quality rum and building the company, Hoskin said she also wanted it to be a force for good in her community and beyond. She turned it into a B Corp company, meaning it has to demonstrate commitment to social and environmental sustainability. Montanya is the only B Corp-designated rum distillery in the world. Hoskin was also steadily ratcheting up efforts to empower women in the industry.

Hoskin was delivering the keynote address to the American Distilling Institute in Baltimore in 2017 when she remembers taking a deep breath in front of an audience of 1,500 – 92% of them men – and delving into the topic of the unfriendly atmosphere for women in distilling.

It broke open a conversation. Old-school distillers panned her uppity ideas. The more progressive distillers thanked her.

At the time she gave that talk, Valentia was soaking up flavor in oak whiskey barrels in Crested Butte. And the idea of turning Valentia into an all-female rum was fermenting in Hoskin’s brain.

Montanya’s distiller, Renee Newton created Valentia, a rum that she aged for three months in rye whiskey casks for flavor finishing. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In the ensuing years of Valentia’s fermentation and finishing, Hoskin has become a recognized national leader in women’s distilling groups. She has zigzagged around the country as a speaker on the subject of women in distilling. She has dedicated part of the profits of Valentia to scholarships that will help other women break into or climb up in the distilling world. She has been a frequent speaker at The American Distilling Institute and the American Craft Spirits Association. She founded the Women’s Distillery Guild, which is a subgroup of Women of the Vine & Spirits. 

Last February, Hoskin was invited to speak about both sustainability and gender at the inaugural Miami Rum Congress. She felt appreciated, she said, not dismissed nor simply tolerated.

“To be taken seriously is important”

Brenner said there aren’t good statistics on how many women are working in the distilling industry from warehouse to the boardrooms. She and other women in the business just know that when they interact with others in the industry they are in the minority. They know that venture capital funding is still mostly going to men. Less than 2% of venture capital and 4% of bank loans have gone to women in the distilling industry.

But their growing power was on display recently when a male bartender in Munich was recognized as The World’s 50 Best Bars’ Industry Icon for 2019. In the wake of that award, his dismissive statements about women were revealed. He had opined that women should not be allowed behind bars after 3 p.m. There was an angry clamor from women in the business. In October, he returned the award.

Karen Hoskin, owner of Montanya Distillers, in the company’s tasting room. Montanya, a B Corp, recently received a capital infusion from Constellation Brands’ Focus on Female Founders venture fund that will allow it to increase production. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This summer, Hoskin knocked down another barrier when she partnered with Constellation Brands, a 75-year-old, Fortune 500 company and leading international producer and marketer of beer, wine and spirits. Funding came through Constellation’s Focus on Female Founders venture fund. She said that funding source will allow Montanya to increase production.

Montanya already has a new still on order and is building a new distilling structure near the company’s rack room and bottling facility. Moving the distilling from a cramped space on the second floor of the Elk Avenue location will allow the company to produce ten times as much rum. 

Newton, who moved into distilling for Montanya eight years ago after earning biology and chemistry degrees at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said she is finding more colleagues in distilling positions and her role is readily accepted in a town like Crested Butte. But, she said, it is at times still a push to be taken seriously in the wider distilling world.

“It is not a question of whether women can do it. Of course, women can do it,” she said. “But to be taken seriously is important.”

Hoskin said she hopes Valentia will help with that. The rum will give her a new story to tell when she speaks to liquor industry groups. It is not a story of a determined woman knowing without a doubt that she could make a groundbreaking rum. Hoskin said making Valentia represented a big risk. She and Newton tweaked the recipe for the Montanya rum that was already earning accolades. They weren’t sure what the final outcome would be until they tapped a barrel recently and tasted what a band of women could do.

“I am really proud of it,” Hoskin said. “At the end of the day it all turned out good — really, really good.”

Nancy Lofholm

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm