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PROFILE: Karen and Brice Hoskin, Rum Pilgrims

Taking sharp left turns at every chance seems to have worked for Karen and Brice Hoskin. It has taken them through astounding scenery, innovative business ventures, off the grid living, creative endeavors, and an interesting trip all the way down the road to Crested Butte, where they own, operate and distill their Montanya Rum.
A native Grand Junction kid, Brice decided to head out to Williams College in Massachusetts because, he quips, “It was as far away as you could go from Grand Junction, and it was a good school, too.” He deferred his first year to travel to China and Tibet, learning Mandarin, and received his BA in Asian Studies.
In a class about pilgrimage, he met Karen, who was studying comparative religion with the intention of traveling to places like India and Nepal. “I lived in India in 1988 through ‘89,” she says of her study abroad. “It’s where I had my first experience with good rum,” she says, adding that some of the cocktails she creates now are inspired by the spices she encountered in the East.
In 1991, Karen found herself in San Francisco, working on the California Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood, and with Diane Feinstein’s gubernatorial team. “I was a little lost after college,” she says of not knowing what she wanted to be when she grew up. “It wasn’t like I could go get a job in my field of comparative religion,” she laughs of her degree. But because she was also a mountain bike fanatic, California seemed a right choice with all its trails in the San Francisco area. Meanwhile, back in the desert, Brice had relocated to Flagstaff, Ariz. to take a job as an environmental consultant, primarily focused on spotted owl research. One day, he wrote Karen a love letter: “’I have a great apartment with plenty of room for two’… and she was at my door in two weeks,” he chuckles of his successful proposal.
Karen took a job as a hotshot …a forest fire fighter. Brice continued to work in the environmental industry until 1995, when he headed off on one of those sharp left turns and started a newsletter publishing company, “Why go straight ahead when you can take a sharp left turn?” he smiles. “Before Google, there was a way to take all the news that was happening in a certain industry and consolidate it so they wouldn’t have to research it themselves.”
He did an article on Pitchfork as it was being designed and built, which was, at the time, a new concept for less populated rural areas, especially in Mt. Crested Butte. “It was higher density than most of the western slope, it’s rural and not common for this area,” Brice explains. It was his first real introduction to Crested Butte.
In Flagstaff, the couple had set up home on a chunk of 40 acres, building their own completely off-grid house. “About a year and half into our second son, we started craving more community,” Karen confessed. “Kids cause mobility. We were both working full time driving an hour-and-a-half a day and the kids were in daycare. It started to feel like a poor use of our time and resources. We had fallen in love with Silverton, Colorado, because we were snow-chasing and cool-summer chasing and we had friends in Silverton. It was such a wonderful, low key, spectacularly beautiful place and the mountains are right there. You couldn’t live there unless you brought your own work,” she says, which they did in 2002, packing up the kids and pooches.
Karen was working her own graphic design company, which she had for 12 years. But Brice laughs that he had other plans: “I was gonna take a year off to be a ski bum. I needed slacker training.” His plans lasted all of three months when he discovered, “I like to have stuff to do. I get bored.”
Their next left turn came with uproarious laughter and spouting snow, kicking out on a wintry night as they glided into their next business, selling the newsletter company in 2002 to start Mountain Boy Sledworks.
“The idea came to me one night after Karen was kick sledding on a sled imported by a local guy,” Brice says. Karen added, “Kick sledding was perfect for Silverton and it made me laugh hysterically and I told Brice that I wanted one but we were sort of broke and the sleds were $350… so he built me the most beautiful kick sled you could imagine!”
Brice quickly interrupted, “And then I sold it!” It’s that same old story about the plumber whose house always has plumbing issues. Karen claims she still can’t seem to keep any of her kick sleds because, “They end up being given away or sold.” Brice explains, “That was the impetus, that first sled. It created so much demand because people saw them and wanted them.” That first winter of 2002 he built 30 shiny new handcrafted wood sleds. The following year he went into production with his exclusive, handmade in Colorado, Mountainboy Sledworks.
“Unlike bikes, you can’t charge enough to make beautiful hand made sleds so we outsourced the new sled designs to China, but all of the kick sleds were still handmade in Colorado. We made and sold 10,000 sleds in one year. We started selling all over the entire U.S., Canada and Europe.” Seeing yet another left turn, the dynamic duo veered left once again to sled into an additional venture.
Having done a lot of home brewing in the 1990s, they had talked about distilling something for years, maybe gin or absinthe, but on a trip to Belize, Karen and Brice discovered that they both loved rum. Karen had already decided that she spent quite enough time designing other people’s business identities with her design company and wanted to do something that would build their own brand.
“Seeing the same percolating energy around craft distilling as we had witnessed in craft beers, only with some twists,” is what Brice says had them on fire about a rum distillery. Since Sledworks was more of a seasonal business, from September through March, Brice took the rest of the year off to start their distillery in 2008.
They visited many other supportive distilleries to get the skinny on becoming expert rum makers, and Brice learned, “It’s chemistry and biology. Yeast must be happy. We celebrate our yeast happiness. Distilling is physics, dealing with different boiling points to take the alcohol off the top, to turn it from 17 percent into 80 percent alcohol.” With the Montanya Distillery fired up and running simultaneously with Mountainboy Sledworks in Silverton, the couple made a bold decision to move both their operations to Crested Butte. “Strangely enough, we’ve gone from rural as possible to progressively more urban,” Karen says of their relocation to our end of the road last year, and into the spacious, former Powerhouse building on the west end of Elk.
Impressively sculpted copper stills tower as the centerpiece of the open interior of the building that was once, historically, the powerhouse for Crested Butte, the electric generator to the town that now packs powerful and tasty rum cocktails. The copper stills themselves were handcrafted and shipped from Portugal where the ancient art of distillery started out in porcelain vessels. But one of the main and most important ingredients in making any distilled spirits is the water and Karen explains the beauty of having Crested Butte’s special H2O. “We think that the water source is more important since its 85 percent of what goes into the bottle. Our water source is a well 350 feet under Riverland, which is, by testing, ten times better than we ever dreamed.”
Montanya has a second facility in the Riverland Industrial Park where all the bottling, aging, packaging, shipping and receiving is done. “The water out there has no heavy metals and great mineralization, like the kind they value in Scotland for their famous scotches. It’s great for rum making. You want to be picky about your water if it’s 85 percent of your product,” Karen says in seriousness and adds that they’re on a mission to get people excited about rum and rum cocktails. “There are plenty of other places in town to drink beer, wine and other spirits,” Karen acknowledges and adds, “It was never our intention to be a late night bar, it’s always been about tasting and sampling and we think that happens best before 10 p.m.,” she says of their early last call.
The Hoskins recently sold Mountainboy Sledworks this past August to another Colorado craftsman who has kept one of his workshops in Crested Butte’s Riverland. Karen and Brice now focus solely on rum and have a bit more time to enjoy the other things they love about Crested Butte.
Karen’s excited about living in paradise and glows, “We were seeking a mountain community that had economic vibrancy, soul and access to the back country. We’re skate skiing and we’re completely obsessed with the whole Nordic infrastructure here. We’ve never had anything like it around us. And in the summer we’re mountain biking and hiking on trails that we’ve never been on before and are so fun. It’s 40 minutes from my desk to the top of the Silver Queen and eight minutes to Magic Meadows. We’re just loving exploring.”
And she puts it into a broader perspective for their family, “It’s community, but it’s also a sense of funkiness. You don’t have to fit into some mold, you can be who are, be a little wacko and still be welcomed. It’s very soulful and people are really enjoying life here and that was really important to us.” Brice says and smiles. “We’re still just getting started. We still have at least three more careers to go.”

Visit their website at montanyarum.com

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