Former champion skier turns master distiller
Ryan Riley is more than a ski bum. The former national mogul champ has spent the years since his retirement adding literary scholar and master distiller to his resume.
Riley grew up in Colorado, a short distance from Evergreen, but it didn’t take him long to migrate closer to the mountains. Particularly Winter Park, where he honed his natural talents as a mogul racer.
“I got really into skiing, so my parents got me into the freestyle program here to ski moguls,” said Riley. “My dad is a phenomenal skier, and he taught me a lot before I even started [in Winter Park]. I was a pretty solid mogul skier by the time I was 11 because of him.”
Riley credits his father, Bob Gaskins who lives in Tabernash, with helping him learn to ski and for allowing Riley the flexibility he needed to pursue his career. In high school Riley attended class only once a week, finishing his assignments on a Greyhound bus and spending his free time training at the resort. He spent his sophomore year at Middle Park High School in Granby before attending Steamboat Mountain School.
A year after high school Riley was welcomed onto the US National Ski Team, where he competed for seven years.
“I’d always dreamt of skiing in these World Cups, traveling around the world with an awesome group of skiers, going to a new ski area every week and competing against each other,” he said. “It was such an exciting lifestyle.”
Riley enjoyed some success as a pro skier. He won national championships in 1999 and 2001 in dual moguls and single. In 2000 he won silver and bronze medals at the Goodwill Games and won Silver at the 2001 World Cup in Japan.
He hung up the skis in 2005, but not before venturing forward with a self-proclaimed “intellectual renaissance.”
Three years before retiring Riley enrolled as an undergraduate at Harvard University, where he studied Literature along with history and philosophy. He earned his degree and left for Oxford University to get his masters.
“It was really a combination of literature, philosophy and history,” said Riley. “Literature seemed like a spot where I could be as free as possible to study the humanities as a whole. It’s unfortunate that academia and universities have become so specialized. I really admire those old polymaths, old universal thinkers like Leonardo da Vinci who were so good at many things.”
Riley says that his success in higher education is a result of his predominantly self-taught schooling. After high school he invested in a Fraser Library card and went to work studying classics by Descartes, Cervantes and Shakespeare.
“I just read anything that looked interesting to me. I did way more reading and way more thinking after high school, just with my library card than I ever did in high school,” he said.
Just a couple years ago Riley was on track to complete a literary PhD program at Yale University when he decided to again change courses. He dropped out and opened Ski Bum Rum, a family-owned craft distillery in Golden. Along with co-owning the distillery with Gaskins, Riley is also the Master Distiller.
Despite just opening last year Ski Bum Rum is already making a name for itself. The distillery’s three rums were all awarded medals at the 2017 Denver International Spirits Competition, and boasting the only Colorado rum to take home a gold.
“I like very well made things,” said Riley. “I’m sort of old fashioned in that way. A lot of products today are a little shotty. I really wanted to make a great product, and that was rum.”
Riley is attempting to make rum part of the Colorado skiing culture, abandoning the tradition of rum as a tropical drink and bringing it to the mountains to be enjoyed in the cold.
“I design our rums not only for summer cocktails but for classic winter ones too,” said Riley. “Onces with flavors such as cinnamon, nutmeg and gingerbread you’d want while sitting by a crackling fire.”
While now it is rum, Riley isn’t sure what the future has in store for him. He says he would like to paint, or become a professor of philosophy or history. And on occasion, while watching world cups or the Olympics, he envisions himself strapping the skis back on.
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