Karen Hoskin, founder/owner of Montanya Distillers

Interview with Karen Hoskin, Founder of Montanya Distillers

Rule Breakers

As a part of the Morning Lazziness series about strong women leaders who attained success with their incredible ideas, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Hoskin.

“Show, don’t tell.”- Karen Hoskin

Karen Hoskin is an entrepreneur, sustainability leader, zero-waste advocate, bar owner, and the founder of ‘Montanya Distillers,’ a well-known distillery in America serving craft spirits and premium, aged rums.

Karen, along with her partner has started – ‘Zoetica,’ a social entrepreneurship company focused on zero-waste products and consulting; currently, she works simultaneously on both of her businesses.

Karen frequently speaks across the world about major issues like environmental and social sustainability in business, the importance of gender diversity in the workplace, bar/restaurant ownership and leadership, premium rum, and the art of craft distilling. She is known for being a leader and breaking the glass ceiling in the traditionally male-dominated profession of distilling.

Many thanks for doing this for us; please let our users know about yourself and your company- Montanya Distillers?

Montanya Distillers makes American, aged rum in Crested Butte, Colorado. A lot of people are surprised that we make rum at nearly 9,000 feet above sea level in the Colorado Rockies, but the same things that make the mountains a great place to live are good for making rum. The clean water, the cooler temperatures, and the high altitude all directly benefit the rum-making process. 

My goal has always been to make the rum that I like to drink—smooth and not sweet, no added sugar, and free of artificial additives—in a sustainable and responsible way. I believe that the best companies balance profit with environmental sustainabilitycontribute to their communities, and take care of their employees. It’s why we became a certified B Corp: to prove that business can be a force for good and to have our commitment to sustainability verified by a third party. Today, we’re distributed in more than 40 states and seven countries. Our business practices have earned us the recognition of being a “Best for the World” company, and we have won numerous awards around the world for our rum and our commitment to being a force for good. 

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I started Montanya 13 years ago this year. After running my own graphic design and branding firm for more than a decade, I was ready to create a brand of my own. I had loved rum since I had my first taste on a beach in India in 1989. Over the years, I had become known as the person who showed up to a party with a bottle of rum and the makings of a great, new cocktail. When I learned there was a mountain tradition of rum in places like Guatemala, Colombia, and Panama, I knew that starting a rum distillery was the perfect fit (at the time, my family and I lived in Silverton, Colorado). I decided to give distilling a try, and although it hasn’t always been easy, I’ve also never had more fun. 

What’s the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?   

Karen Hoskin, founder/owner of Montanya Distillers

About eight years ago, I was in Los Angeles for a sales trip. I was visiting a gorgeous rum-focused speakeasy called La Descarga, just one brainchild of Pablo Moix and Steve Livigni, of whose work I am a serious fangirl. I was lamenting leaving the bar early because, as a woman by myself, the inevitable shift was taking place where I was no longer an industry professional but a conquest for the older single men sitting nearby. I was salty that my male colleagues in the rum world could work onward until midnight and 2 am.

So I walked outside into West Hollywood and found that my rental car had been towed to Compton because I had overstayed my meter. I had to take an Uber deep into a neighborhood that felt very unsafe. $350 later, I was back on the road. This was the moment that I saw clearly the extra barriers that existed for a female distillery owner. I would have to accomplish my goals in half the time while fending off sexual advances. This was going to be hard.     

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? 

I had no idea what the Three-Tiered System even was! This is the system that is the foundation of how alcoholic beverages are sold in America. It’s like wanting to sell your farm’s apples and not knowing there was such a thing as a grocery store.  

You have been blessed with great success in a career path. What advice you would like to give others?

As I reflect on myself as a younger person, I realize I was terrified of failure and felt I carried the reputation of my entire gender on my shoulders. I also believed early on in my career that hard work was the key to success. I later learned that smart, strategic work is the key, combined with courage and bravery. You must be brave to take risks, speak your truth, accept challenges, step outside your comfort zone, and believe in success before it arrives.

Moreover, the next time I start a company, I will do a little more market research first. 

How do you keep yourself motivated throughout the day?

My greatest stress relief takes place outside. Skiing, hiking, and trail running are my primary meditations. But my greatest stress-relieving technique is this: I imagine if I could do anything right now, no barriers or variables to solve, what would I do? Sometimes I want to spend time with my music partner creating or recording new music, or I want to have breakfast with one of my (wonderful) sons. I take whatever steps I can right away to make the desire come to life. It is remarkable how often it does (because my desires are not very complicated or unapproachable). This practice is integral to my self-care.     

What would you say are the top 3 skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur, and why?

These are more like traits than skills:

  • Relentlessness,
  • a bit of irrational exuberance,
  • and patience (because it most often takes way longer than you think it should.)  

There is no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

This is where humility really comes into play. I am not too proud to redirect if something isn’t working. When something IS working, I go in hard and invest. I avoid “escalation of commitment” just because I am too proud to admit failure. If I can really see at least the seedlings of payoff, I ramp up. I am really clear that my metrics are different, not just about total revenue but “how much good did we do?”

Karen Hoskin, founder/owner of Montanya Distillers

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread?

I flex every single intellectual muscle I have every single day. I move from designing a cooling tower system to writing an article for a distillery publication to managing an HR problem to conceiving a graphic design project. There is literally not a moment to get bored because I am never able to get comfortable.  

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. It will take longer and cost more than you think, so plan accordingly. (It has taken me 13 years, and I still sometimes wonder whether this will work! The alcohol beverage business is hard, and the big guys don’t necessarily want to see me succeed.)
  2. You will need to do hard things and unpleasant tasks to succeed. If you have any snobbishness about changing the toilet paper rolls or mopping up messes, get a desk job working for someone else. Entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart. (I have had to say some very hard things about gender bias and sexual harassment to some esteemed colleagues over the years. The risk felt almost unimaginable. But to a person, they have come back later and said that they appreciated what I taught them about how to interact with professional women in the spirits business. There are many businesses in which I wouldn’t have needed to fight this hard. But I chose the profession of craft distilling when it was mostly male-dominated in 2008. I also chose to be a wildland firefighter when there were almost no women. Clearly, this is a destiny of mine, so I take the responsibility seriously. I want to do justice to my entire gender in my profession.)  
  3. By the same token, in order to grow, you will have to delegate well. You can’t have your hands in everything, which is hard for founders to let go of. (I was shadowed by a potential investor for a whole day and saw my daily tasks through his eyes. I was doing landscaping in my tasting room gardens. I was replacing light bulbs and hand bottling every bottle of rum myself. I was washing dishes on busy nights. It was a point of pride that I was able to do every job in my establishment. But he was right to point out that I was doing things others could do, rather than really focusing on what only I could do. I started handing off more and keeping what others couldn’t help with. Productivity went up drastically.) 
  4. Your employees will sometimes be your biggest hurdles, but they will also provide some of your greatest lessons. I’ve had to learn what matters most to my employees and truly listen while also understanding each employee is different and that what works for one may not matter to another. Sometimes disagreements will come up, but there is always something constructive to come from it. 
  5. Be vulnerable. Being strong every single day can be alienating to those who work most closely with you. They won’t get scared if you pull back the curtain a little on what makes you tick as an owner or boss. (My distillery expansion is $30k over budget, and that is causing me a lot of stress. I sat down with my distilling team and opened the door to the data and my stress. The whole team became galvanized to find ways to bring the project across the finish line without any more overages. I should have done this sooner.)

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself, “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so, how did you overcome it?

Every single day. I overcome it by breaking my days down into small, achievable tasks. I look back and celebrate achievements. Sometimes I put my blinders on to the biggest tasks that are the scariest until I have more bandwidth and confidence.   

What helps you stay driven and motivated to keep going in your business?

You’ll think it is tongue in cheek, but amnesia! It is almost like birth when women forget how terribly painful it was. I try to forget how hard it has been and keep my eyes facing forward.  

What are your plans for the future? How do you plan to grow this company?

Exactly as I have for 13 years, with a primary focus on building a loyal organic following, telling our story, and making delicious rum that meets my high-quality standards.  

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.