Montana Horsfall moved to Colorado Springs with two suitcases, one guitar, no job and no place to live. It’s not the craziest thing she’s ever done.
She’s been an EMT, an office assistant, a veterinary technician, a social work student, a science student, a restaurant manager, and a Nashville stage manager.
Now an acclaimed bartender and president of Craft Cocktail Inc., Horsfall coaches clients around Colorado Springs, holding classes to share her sought-after skills and knowledge of cocktails, wines and spirits. But if you ask the folks she grew up with in Montana (yes, Montana), leaving her hometown was a harebrained scheme in the first place.
“I grew up in a very tiny town, but I was that kid — I wanted to travel,” Horsfall said. “I didn’t want to just get married and stay in the little place I was at. I really wanted to explore, meet different types of people. It was funny, because everyone was really kind of discouraging about it. They were like, ‘Oh, we all wanted to do that at one point. But you’re gonna get married.’”
True to her word, Horsfall left Montana at 24 to work as an office assistant for a truck and bus fleet department in Texas.
“It was terrifying. It was the first time I’d left Montana,” she said. “Through that, I met people — because it’s all about who you know — and I moved to Nashville and became a stage manager. I got the opportunity of an absolute lifetime.”
Horsfall assumed she’d be a grip, but the production company made her stage manager.
“I’m like, ‘I have barely been to a concert.’ They said, ‘Trust me, doesn’t matter. What we do back here, you’re perfect at.’ So I was a stage manager in Nashville, traveling the country — a dream come true at the age of 24. I did that for two years and then I was like, ‘Now what?’ What do you do when you’ve completed your life’s goal real early?”
Horsfall had had her eye on Colorado Springs ever since she explored the city while the production company toured Denver, and she made up her mind to move.
“I left Nashville. I left the job of a lifetime, but I was physically hurting,” she said. “Stage management is the most brutal job.”
It was a starting-over situation. Horsfall had no apartment, no car, some college under her belt — in social work — and one friend in the Springs.
“I thought, in this transition of not knowing what I want to do, I’ll take a risk,” she said. “I started bartending at Johnny Carino’s — at a corporate chain making Bellinis out of a machine. … The absolute bottom. At Johnny Carino’s I met Tristan — he’s now one of my best friends. He was a bartender there, and he got me an apartment, and a roommate, and he gave me all his furniture. … There are just people out there who see something in you, and they take that risk on you, and it pays off.”
Horsfall went on to bartend at The Melting Pot, and started to think of bartending as a viable career. But she’d long harbored a burning desire to study nursing or medicine.
“So I started going to college but I kept with the bartending thing because at this point in time, I’m in my 30s — not a good time to be like, ‘Wonder what I’m going to do with my life?’”
Horsfall held a 3.7 GPA, but found every school she applied to wanted a 4.0.
“So I got denied. Ten times,” she said. “I got accepted in Hawaii — but I would’ve had to move to Hawaii. I’m from a poor family, you know, and I’ve been doing this on my own. … I was like, ‘I don’t understand how I can be denied so many times with such great grades.’ Even my friends said, ‘It’s like Jesus speaking to you.’”
Horsfall stopped pursuing a nursing degree and studied science instead.
“I started taking organic chemistry, microbiology — I was in love with it. But … I had to make a living. I’m dying here literally sleeping in basements, trying to pay for college. And I’m like, ‘This is not the American dream. This is an American nightmare.’ Finally I was like, ‘Let’s just bartend for a while.’”
For Horsfall, “a while” has grown into a thriving career and a business of her own. This week, she talked with the Business Journal about teaching the joy and science of a great cocktail, and changing the way people see bartenders.
Tell us how you decided to start Craft Cocktail Inc.
My name had gotten pretty decent around this town as a good bartender. One day I went into The Blue Star — years ago when it was open — and they hired me. Just like that. So I started bartending again and as I got back into it, I applied all my chemistry knowledge. At Blue Star I became very well known again … and I started noticing if you’re really good at this, you can make a living at it. Then I got hired at [Distillery] 291 … and that’s when things took off. I was going through, ‘OK, this is my career.’ But what do you do when you get old? I’m old for this industry. Very. I’m turning 38 in a couple weeks. They’re normally like, 22. … I [realized] you have to move in a different direction other than just flat bartender. I was thinking, ‘What am I gonna do? Where’s my place in this?’ One day I was standing outside smoking a cigarette with a friend of mine … and I was getting annoyed because guests kept asking me all the time, ‘What are you doing? How do I do that?’ They did that for like a year and a half: ‘Can you come to my house and teach me?’ I stood outside and told this guy, ‘I’m really annoyed by this.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you start a company? You could do that.’ And I thought, ‘I could do that.’ And here I am.
How long between that conversation and starting the company?
I started thinking of it around September of 2017. I was making plans. I didn’t tell anybody because people love to give their opinion. I didn’t get this far off of listening to anyone — because if I had, I would have gone to Hawaii and spent $200,000 getting a nursing degree — or I might still be in Montana, pregnant to a rancher, you know. … So I slowly but surely found a way … I called Casey, a good friend of mine at Axe and the Oak, who is now my boss. … I gave three weeks’ notice to 291, and the second I got into Axe and the Oak, January of 2018, is the day I started the company. … My first class I didn’t teach until like, April, but from January to April, I was able to find locations, find liquor — I built the thing quickly in four months.
What’s the work like?
I’m having an absolute blast. I love, love, love it — getting to talk to people and getting to wow people, it’s my favorite thing. Because it’s cocktails, but the way I do it is different. … Every single thing I do behind a bar has a method to its madness. If anybody could put a microphone in my brain it’d be going a million miles a minute. … There is a science to this. It is science; it’s chemistry from the distillation portion of it, to microbiology of the fermentation part of it. … What I call myself at this point is a spirits specialist, because you’re barely a bartender anymore.
What do you teach?
I will teach on anything and everything. … My last class at Urban Steam was Japanese whisky, and we did an entire experience. It was a Japanese bar experience and the food matched the cocktails. The cocktails were pure Japanese style. I researched them for weeks. I immerse myself in a culture and bring that culture here.
The other types of classes I teach, I really do a conglomerate of almost anything. I tell people, ‘If it has to do with cocktails or spirits or wine: I do that.’ I will teach on wine. I will teach on spirits. I host private events … for educational purposes. Another great collaboration is Downtown Fine Wine and Spirits; I teach people there.
So you’re changing the way
Absolutely. There’s certain drinks that you can make at home. You can make this Old Fashioned at home; it’s not that expensive. In fact, it’s more expensive to go out. But a Tiki cocktail — do not make that thing at all. Do not take those 12 ingredients. It’s going to cost you $1,000 to make one cocktail. Don’t do that. I teach people how to go out and how to be educated consumers. And they just love it. … A lot of what I do is collaborate with businesses like this and get the person to make the cocktail themselves — because they just love the hands-on experience. It’s so much fun to watch them when they’ve never poured liquor in their life. … What they’re doing is developing a massive appreciation for bartenders, the knowledge and the history. They’re fascinated by it.
Talk about how you’re
contributing to the bar scene here in the Springs.
I absolutely want to pave the way for a couple of things. No. 1, bartenders: If you’re good at this, it’s a job. Take it seriously. You don’t drink on shift. You don’t do drugs. You go home, you sleep. It’s a career; treat it like one. [For the] new generation, I want them to have successful lives; whether they become successful bartenders or not is the least of my concerns. But if you’re good at it, it can propel you forward to anything you want. … And I’m hoping the bartenders behind the bar are really helping the guests on the other side: Do not get intoxicated. Enjoy the thing, get tipsy — but then you Lyft home. And if you want another cocktail at home, I’m going to show you how to make it. Be safe. Again, appreciate it for what it is. It’s history. It’s chemistry. It’s art. It’s the passion of many, many people.