Management and leadership positions in many industries are dominated by men, and often these industries are deemed “boys’ clubs” because of their exclusive cultures. The alcohol industry is one of them. Women in the industry continue to face sexual harassment and abuse. And in 2018, only “4% of C-suite positions in wine and spirits were held by women.”
Women in leadership positions often report having their expertise questioned and having people mistake them for someone other than a leadership figure, leaving much work to be done to make the alcohol industry more equitable and inclusive.
“It was hard early on, even in my own circles,” said Karen Hoskin, founder and owner of Mountain Distillers. “I walked into a room of people who had up to that point invested $250,000 into my business, and they thought I was the caterer. They asked if I was there to bring lunch. I was like, ‘Are you serious right now? I’m your next presentation. You asked me to come and do my annual report to you guys.’”
I spoke with Hoskin, founder and owner of Montanya Distillers, a Certified B Corporation and a Certified Plastic Neutral company, as part of my research of purpose-driven businesses and to learn more about the company’s work on issues including diversity and environmental sustainability.
Chris Marquis: Tell me a bit about the background of your company. Why did you decide to start your own distillery?
Karen Hoskin: Back in 1998, I started a brand-building company. I spent about 10 years building brands for other people. I did graphic design and web design, I built trade show booths, I designed catalogs. And I loved the work, but at one point I thought, “Gosh, every project I do I just give everything away. It’s always somebody else’s to keep at the end of the project.” And I felt like I wanted to keep something; use all those same skills and what I knew and understood to build my own brand. So that was the watershed moment.
When I asked myself what I wanted to do, the answer was, “I want to start a craft rum distillery in the mountains of Colorado,” which you can imagine, literally everything about it was just so wrong. This was 13 years ago, and there were no women — really no women — in the industry. I can count on three fingers the women that I interacted with who were actually hands-on distilling anything, and none of them were owners. Throughout the country, I knew a couple more, and again, not owners. And I was in the mountains of Colorado — nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m going to go drink rum in the mountains of Colorado.” And it was really before the craft cocktail industry took off.
I opened the doors in November of 2008, and I had a fully fledged craft cocktail bar and a tasting room all in 800 square feet. Then in Silverton, Colorado, they had started this really crazy ski area that nobody had ever seen the likes of; it was focused on back-country skiing. It was drawing crazy numbers of executives from San Francisco and New York City, and I have this bar that was wall-to-wall full of people. Then in the summers, I would have a bunch of outdoor seating.
So that was my humble beginnings. I made all the rum. My first hire was a female distiller who had never distilled anything before, so it was like the blind leading the blind. We would go back and forth and trade off like, “You distill your bottle. I’ll run the tasting room. I’ll distill a bottle. You run the tasting room.” We were like a two-woman show, and that was a long dang time. Now I have multiple rounds of venture capital, and I occupy 5,800 square feet, and I have 38 employees, and we ship rum all over the world. We just shipped seven pallets over to London last week.
Marquis: Talk to me more about gender diversity in the alcohol industry. Why was it important for you as one of a handful of women in the industry to work on the issue yourself?
Hoskin: I’ve been a follower of the Enneagram Personality Test. I’m an enneagram eight, which means I’m a challenger. I’m just not the one who’s going to do stuff and hope people notice or change paradigms and not say anything. I’m very upfront and vocal and storytelling-focused in what we’re up to as a company, what I’m up to as an individual, and what I care about. When I started, because there were so few women, I was often kind of put in that role, whether I wanted it or not. It would often be like, “Let’s try to get a female owner on this panel. Let’s try to get someone to talk about gender diversity in the distilling world. Let’s put her on the stage.” And I’ve always been willing to talk about it. I think first you have to have people willing to call it out and say what’s not working.
Just recently, a woman brewer made a post on Instagram, and she said, “Hey, does anybody else experience these really challenging environments in the industry?” Holy cow, the shit hit the fan, and thousands and thousands of women in the brewing industry started storytelling. It’s kind of like a hashtag moment. Quite a few prominent male brewers have stepped down because of the storytelling.
So I’ve always taken the approach that I don’t want to wait for things to have to blow up like that. I’ll confront it now and talk about these issues. There’s no reason why we can’t call it out in the moment and just say we’re working on this as an industry. Let’s fix some of this stuff. Let’s help our colleagues understand our experiences and help train them with our JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) work. Let’s just talk about it and call it out. Let’s not get to a point where companies are having to make dramatic apologies.
I was the first woman who did the keynote speech at the American Distilling Institute. And now I’m at a point where I don’t have to talk about it quite as much because it’s so much a part of the discussion now, and people are much more willing to talk about the lack of diversity in the industry, call it out, and create committees to work on these things. So it’s been a good decade.
It was hard early on, even in my own circles. I walked into a room of people who had up to that point invested $250,000 into my business, and they thought I was the caterer. They asked if I was there to bring lunch. I was like, “Are you serious right now? I’m your next presentation. You asked me to come and do my annual report to you guys.”
I can tell you some stories that just would curl your toes. But the big thing that I talk a lot about is that as an owner, when I go out to work a market, let’s say I go to L.A., I work with a distributor to cultivate a new distributor relationship. I can’t be at the bar after 10 p.m. as a woman traveling alone. I’m not really safe, or if I’m safe, I’m not really enjoying myself very much. I sometimes joke and say, “I have to get twice as much done in half the time because I can’t be out until 2 a.m. with the bartenders and really establish my recognizability as an owner.” It’s amazing how many people I really know and love and respect perpetuate this environment for women in the industry on a daily basis. So I’ve had to say some hard things to some people I love.
But also, I’m mentoring a lot of women. At any given moment, I have three to four women that I’m mentoring, who are either coming up in the distilling world or looking for jobs in the distilling world or starting their own craft distillery. I love that work.
And I’m expanding. I’ve just been doing a huge expansion on my own distillery. And still, after 13 years of doing this, I have to convince every single engineer, architect, inspector, and compliance person that I actually know what I’m talking about, that I’ve done my due diligence, and that this installation is to code.
Marquis: Recently, you were very transparent about missing your goal of becoming a zero-waste company by 2020. You did, however, make great progress toward the goal. Why was it important to be so transparent and explain the reasons why you missed the goal rather than just setting a new goal and saying you were still working on it?
Hoskin: My commitment to trying to operate a sustainable company has been pretty much since day one, but about four years ago, I set a goal that by 2020 the company would be zero waste. I had no clue how hard it was going to be. I had a suspicion, but I saw these zero waste companies all the time. I go to restaurants in San Francisco, and there’s zero waste restaurants. So I thought, “This has to be possible.” And the more I delved into it, the more I came to understand some of the systemic barriers.
The first barrier that I couldn’t get over was simply believing that my recycling was going to where it said it was going. I started following it to where it was going after I recycled it and then really held our local transfer station to its transparency requirement. I then followed it to the next step, which is where it went up to Grand Junction and was loaded onto trucks. Essentially, I could tell you which things were going where they said they were going and which things were not. Cardboard was totally unpredictable, and because I run a bar and restaurant, I get a ton of cardboard. Plastic was also difficult. Cardboard and plastic were probably the hardest to know whether they were going where I thought they were going to go. Glass and aluminum cans were fine. Just because I put it in the recycle bin and it gets taken away doesn’t mean it got recycled.
I kind of had to wake up to that four years ago. But I was hoping that I would find that I was being extra suspicious and that the reality was it was better than we thought. It was not better than we thought. I think now it’s actually better because COVID has driven some supply chain shifts that I think are beneficial to recycling. Things are getting recycled more often.
The second barrier was we were recycling all of our compost from the production side as well as the bar and restaurant. We were doing commercial composting. We had a partner that was a local company. We were super psyched about the relationship. They would bring us back compost in the spring to do all of our company gardens, and it was just awesome. Then she just closed her doors one day. She went away and left her infrastructure with us. It’s like holding a basket of little tiny octopuses. Everything’s in the basket and then something jumps out. So compost jumped out and recycling jumped out, and you’re reaching over to try to bring compost back in then three other things jump out. I had worked really hard to get these backings on my labels that were fully recyclable then they basically stopped using that material because it wasn’t as reliable as a plastic backing. So I can’t keep everything wrangled.
When the composter closed, I was like, “I have to buy a biodigester.” We installed it, and now we’re working back toward zero waste on solid food and production biowaste. That was a big hurdle to clear. That biodigester is amazing. It’s like a little magician’s box. It turns the waste into fertilizing grey water that I can drain legally. It’s not waste at that point, but I can also use it to fertilize gardens, and I can sell it to people if they want it.
We got the plastic-neutral certification as our alternative to feeling good about plastic recycling. So we still recycle our plastic, but we don’t trust that that’s zero waste. We partnered with this company called rePurpose Global. With that partnership, we support a specific waste management project in India. We decided to focus on this program that’s reclaiming plastic out of the natural environment in a community where indiscriminate dumping of plastic (a worldwide problem) creates environmental and human health problems.