Made in Colorado 2016: Renee Newton
Head distiller brings scientific precision to Montanya rum
Montanya Distillers, Crested Butte
Newton, 33, moved to Colorado for the mountains and stayed for the science. Craft spirits came later.
“My background is in biology and chemistry,” the North Carolina transplant says. “I’ve always been really science-oriented.”
That led her to work at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, above Crested Butte, in 2010. After researching respiration rates of subalpine forests and high-altitude mustard growth, she accepted a much different opportunity from Montanya founders Karen and Brice Hoskin.
“They taught me how to make rum,” says Newton. “Brice hopped on it and taught me how to distill.
“The basics of it, we say, aren’t like rocket science,” she says. But there is an art to maintaining the correct temperatures at the right time. “It’s very precise. If you’re off by one or two degrees, you can ruin the whole batch.”
And Crested Butte’s 8,909-foot elevation adds a wrinkle or two: Water boils at 195 degrees Fahrenheit and temperature fluctuations help agitate the rum as it ages in barrels into Platino, Oro and Anejo varieties.
It also requires hours of focus. “When the stills are running, I’m right there, adjusting the water, adjusting the gas,” Newton says. “I never leave the building. We’re very much eyes on the still all day.”
Does distilling scratch Newton’s science itch? “Oh, yeah,” she says. Chemistry “is a huge part of distilling. It comes into play all the time.”
Newton also had a natural aptitude for the job. “I’m a southerner, so moonshine is definitely in the blood,” she laughs.
But she’s quick to point out that rum is more complicated than moonshine. “Rum is legally some form of sugar cane,” she says. “That can be straight sugar cane, molasses, or sugar-cane juice.”
Montanya’s production facility produces rum for the tasting room in downtown Crested Butte, where the menu includes some unexpected cocktails and infusions. “We’re trying to show people rum doesn’t mean just a piña colada or a rum and coke or a mojito,” says Newton. “There’s a lot more you can do with rum.”
Sales were up 40 percent in 2015, but Newton says Montanya doesn’t plan to change with growth. “We’ll change the volume, but we won’t change the method,” she says. “We’re still hand-bottling and hand-labeling. Hands are everywhere, all the time.”
Adds Newton: “I didn’t think getting a chemical degree would lead to becoming a distiller, but I wouldn’t change anything.”