Lime-laced daiquiris, creamy piña coladas, ginger-tinged dark ‘n’ stormies: When we think of rum, we naturally imagine tropical cocktails against a dreamy backdrop of sun, sand and surf. But there’s another side to this popular spirit. While the colorful history of its production throughout the Caribbean is darkened by colonialism and slavery, rum itself is a far more complex character than its starring role in umbrella drinks suggests. Not to knock such stuff completely — there’s good reason for the current revival of vintage punches and classic tiki concoctions: Namely, their combination of technical complexity and fruity froth appeals to serious-minded mixologists and party-minded revelers alike.
Distilled most commonly from molasses, rum can also be made from cane syrup or even fresh cane juice (as is the famed rhum agricole of Martinique). Varieties are myriad; depending on the aging process, they can be white, gold, dark and black as well as spiced. Generally speaking, the longer they’ve aged, the better they serve as sipping rather than mixing rums. But quality is primarily determined by the careful efforts of the distiller — which helps explain why, high in the Rocky Mountains, of all places, a number of enterprising Coloradans are beginning to produce some real gems.
Granted, they’re at one major disadvantage. As Andy Causey — who, with his brother Matt and their partner Mitch Abate, runs Downslope Distilling in the Denver suburb of Centennial — puts it, “Obviously, we can’t grow sugar cane on the banks of the mighty Cherry Creek. We’re also landlocked, so the historical commercial aspects [of the industry] are absent as well.”
Why assume such a expensive risk, then, in sourcing dried, pressed cane juice from Maui, especially when grain-based products — Downslope also makes vodka and whiskey — have a far clearer track record here? He shrugs wryly. “The answer is, Why not? The market is mostly populated with insipid product, and it just doesn’t have to be that way. And there’s a lot of room for us to distinguish ourselves because we’re out of the typical production zone.”
His sibling Matt agrees. “My experiences with white rum were limited to Bacardi — looks like nothing’s there, tastes like lighter fluid. But no one was really making it around here, and while at first we were apprehensive, once we tried some, we were like, ‘Wow, this is what rum should taste like.”
High altitude spirits
Meanwhile, as Montanya Distillers’ Karen Hoskin, sees it, the mountainous Colorado landscape actually presents a level, rather than uneven, playing field. On the one hand, she says, “One of the bigger misconceptions out there is that these Caribbean distilleries are getting cane from their own islands, and that’s actually gone by the wayside pretty significantly. They have tremendous pressure from the tourism industry [in terms of land use], so most Caribbean distillers are pulling their cane from Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil.” Montanya gets its cane from Maui, so “it’s not even like they have a benefit over us.”
On the other hand, it was after an eye-opening visit to the acclaimed Ron Zacapa distillery, high in the Sierra Madres of Guatemala, that Hoskin and her husband-partner Brice Hoskin “determined that what was more important than immediate access to sugar cane was access to really high quality mountain water and altitude-aging potential.”
“We think Rocky Mountain water is the best in the world; ours comes from snowmelt and it’s exceptionally flavorful.”
The second point is a bit more complicated, Hoskins explains: “We did a lot of research to see what effect altitude has on aging. What it comes down to is that the diurnal temperature fluctuations that happen in the barrels [at high elevations] are a catalyst to aging. It’s a very kinetic process; the rum is forced in and out of the pores of the barrels, getting exposed to the oak and the charcoal in a way that doesn’t happen in a humid sea-level climate, where they use pressurizing techniques to try to create the natural environment that we have here in Colorado.”
Thus satisfied that they could indeed make great rum at 9,300 feet, the Hoskins opened Montanya in Silverton in 2008. Convincing the public they could do it turned out, much to their surprise, to be even easier. Now the fastest-growing rum distillery in the United States (which recently moved to a larger base of operations in Crested Butte), Montanya “kinda got it right from the start,” marvels Hoskin. Both the light (platino) and dark (oro) rums took medals at prestigious international competitions the year they were released, and their acclaim has only spread.
Colorado: ‘built by the tipplers for the tipplers’
But credit for Colorado’s microdistillery boom doesn’t, Hoskin points out, go solely to the producers themselves. Legislation friendly to permit-seeking entrepreneurs was “an essential piece” of their success, she says, just as it has been for the long-established local beer industry. “I do think that Colorado offers a higher level of support for the industry, and it has such a strong history of microbrewing. There’s a synergy of people who’ve been in the beer world and are moving into the spirits world. So [Coloradans have] been trained by companies like New Belgium and Ska and Stranahan’s, which was on the early end of the distilling trend, to have a mentality of appreciating drinks that come from close to home.”
New Belgium and Ska are famed brewing companies in Fort Collins and Durango, respectively. Denver-based sensation Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey was bought by Promixo Spirits to the tune of $3 million in 2010.
Even anecdotal history goes to show that Colorado, like few other states, was built by the tipplers, for the tipplers. Thanks to the hard-knock yahoos who came to stake their claim in gold in the 19th century, taverns sprouted here before schools and hospitals. It was in a saloon that the seat of local government was founded in 1859. And once an influx of enterprising German immigrants (among them one Adolph Kuhrs) caught wind of its wealth of natural resources — above all those aforementioned mountain springs — the state was bound to gain renown as a brewhub.
Rum trade: ‘Whatever it takes’
That rugged DIY attitude has now spread from brewers to distillers, embodied in characters like Kristian Naslund of Loveland, who only recently left his job as a paramedic firefighter to concentrate full time on his startup with wife Kimberly, Dancing Pines Distillery — which produces not only three different rums from blackstrap molasses but also a number of cordials, including a superb espresso liqueur infused with locally roasted beans.
And Ian James, founder of Mancos Valley Distillery, a former brewer who single-handedly produces Ian’s Alley Rum out of, yes, an alley off Main Street in a sleepy town near the Four Corners. And Mitch Abate, the Causey brothers’ partner at Downslope — who once posed as a journalist to land one-on-one research interviews with a number of Kentucky’s master bourbon distillers. “They treated me like royalty, wining and dining me,” he recalls with amusement.
Hey, whatever it takes. That could well be the motto of Colorado’s emerging rum trade.
Co Co Rumchata
Horchata, a spiced rice-and-almond cooler popular across Latin America, serves as the inspiration for this cocktail from bartender Tyler French of Denver’s Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar.
- Shake all ingredients in a tin vigorously.
- Add ice and shake again.
- Strain into a small wine glass rimmed with cocoa powder rim.
- Sprinkle chocolate shavings over the foam.
- Serve with a small straw.
* Simple syrup is a mixture of equal parts sugar and water brought to a boil, then reduced to a simmer until the sugar is dissolved.
Zester Daily contributor Ruth Tobias is assistant editor at Sommelier Journal as well as a seasoned food-and-beverage writer for numerous city and national publications; she is also the author of the upcoming “Food Lover’s Guide to Denver & Boulder” from Globe Pequot. Her website is www.ruthtobias.com or follow her @Denveater.
Photos, from top:
Matt Causey, Andy Causey and Mitch Abate of Downslope Distilling. Credit: Downslope Distilling.
Co Co Rumchata. Credit: Tyler French.