Karen Hoskin, Montanya Distillers, Crested Butte, CO
Former career: Designer, Brand Builder
A little over nine years ago, Karen Hoskin, founder and distiller of Montanya Distillers in Crested Butte, Colorado, decided she’d had enough of her job. She owned her own brand-building business, designing everything from logos and websites to marketing campaigns and ads for new companies.
“One morning in about March of 2008 I woke up and said, ‘I am so tired,’” Hoskin recalls. “I was tired of pulling all nighters to reach deadlines on a regular basis. At the end, I would hand everything over to someone else and it would be theirs and their company and their dream. I got a little envious of my customers. I wanted my own dream and my own thing that I could keep at the end of the day.”
Later that year, she opened Montanya Distillers. “I came up with the idea while on a beach in Tobacco Caye [in Belize].” Her husband asked her what she’d do if she quit her job and, without hesitation, she replied, “I want to make rum.”
The new role was a natural fit. Hoskin had been a rum fanatic for years and, after visiting Guatemala and seeing what Ron Zacapa was doing, the Colorado-based designer realized she wanted to carve her place in the same mountain rum-making tradition. But while the brand building came easily to her, she admits that she knew nothing about distilling. That led her to spend a lot of quality time with the team at Peach Street Distillers in Palisade, Colorado, learning the ins and outs of the business. “They were amazing and answered every question and made me feel so welcomed in the conversation,” she says. Within a few months, Hoskin received her TTB permit to begin distilling, and in November 2008, she opened her distillery—and tasting room—doors in Silverton, Colorado, and began serving her first batch of rum, aged six to eight weeks.
“It’s taken nine-plus years to figure out how it works and functions,” she says. “It’s been challenging, but it’s part of what makes Montanya unique. We’ve grown organically.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. “The usual equations for building a business just don't seem to apply in the craft spirits industry,” she says. ”[It’s not as simple as] make a good product, mark it up, sell it, make money.” Big brand competition meant pouring excessive amounts of money into the business. “I didn't take on investors until year five, which made for some incredibly lean years,” she says. “If I were giving myself advice now, I'd have gone out for investor money much earlier or kept my day job way longer.”
Now, Hoskin is making a silver and a gold rum, and she uses the platform she’s built for herself in the industry to advocate for causes she believes in, including sustainability, transparency and women’s advancement. In April, she gave the keynote speech at the American Distilling Institute Conference. “It was really alarming to stand up in front of 1,500 people and see that less than 10 percent of them are women,” she says, but adds that she’s loved every minute of her distilling journey. “It’s a gender bending story in an industry of white men. It’s been the most fun I’ve had doing anything.”