By Malcolm Rashaad Banks
Du Nord Craft Spirits owner Chris Montana’s successful launch of the first Black-owned distillery in America in 2013 was a groundbreaking achievement. In the eight years since then, Du Nord has produced award-winning spirits, but Montana has remembered to leave the door open for others to follow, though the brand’s inclusive hiring practices, as well as the Du Nord Foundation, which addresses racial inequity and supports underrepresented business owners in the Twin Cities.
Montana and his wife Shanelle have created a brand that isn't hiding behind a marketing campaign. Instead, the couple has poured their efforts into producing the best tasting vodka, gin, whiskey, and liqueurs possible. The result is award-winning spirits that prove distilling is less about profit and more about passion.
UPTOWN recently caught up with Montana to talk about the idea of Du Nord Craft Spirits, emphasizing the taste of his products, and his ambitious goals for the brand moving forward.
Where did the idea for Du Nord Craft Spirits originate? Please share some of your history with us.
Chris Montana: I always wanted to start my own business. That's not to say that as a kid, I knew that I wanted to be a distiller, but I knew I wanted to do something. I wanted to build something for myself and grew up with this thinking. In a culture where people look at business as the problem, not the solution, I didn't think it had to be that way. I felt that there is a way to own a business and still be a good person and be suitable for your community and be good for people. Back in 2013, I settled on a distillery, which was an evolution from what I had initially thought I would create, a brewery. There are several reasons for not doing a brewery, but mainly because what the beer crowd was drinking wasn't all that balanced or all that good, and I didn't want to make a brew that nobody wanted to drink. A friend of mine in law school suggested a distillery. It's half the process of a brewery. You just have to layer up the process. For some reason, my wife was on board with the idea. I think she was OK with it because it was an opportunity to bring her background in and meshed it with mine because we were going to use corn from her family farm. It started back then just as an idea, if nobody is doing this, why not us? We like spirits; why can't we be that next distillery that pops?
What are some obstacles you faced in the beginning stages of getting the idea off the ground?
Chris Montana: Plenty! The first obstacle that anybody has starting up a business is money, and we didn't have any. I grew up not independently wealthy. We had a hard time getting funds for it. In the end, banks didn't want to mess with us. We didn't have pathways to investors or know how to do that. At the time, the only way that we could get this done, we had one community development organization say they'd give us a $60,000 loan. That might sound like a lot of money, but to put it in context, if you were to go to a distillery consultant today and say, "I want to start up a distillery," they would probably tell you to have at least $2,000,000 in the bank. We couldn't get close to that number. We were, without doubt, the cheapest distillery to start in a time when there weren't any distilleries in the Twin Cities. So there was no model for it. That was the other challenge that we didn't have the money, so we couldn't hire consultants to come in and tell us how to do everything. We had to figure it out. While that was a challenge, it also ended up being an asset because it's why we had to learn so much and so fast. After all, we had to be our own maintenance crew. We had to be our own designers. We had to build the place with our own hands. That process taught me a ton about the industry and what's good and what's bad about it.
What makes your spirits unique?
Chris Montana: The first thing that we lead with, and the first thing everybody leads with, is quality. We wanted it to be good. We recognize that no matter how good of a gin you make, they're going to be people who don't like it. If you're going to drink, which you don't need to, but it should be good if you're going to do it. Maybe you don't like ours. That's fine. If you like ours, that's why you should support us. That's at the foundation. I understand you cannot please all people all the time, but whatever it is that we put out, we want it to be good. We sell nothing that hasn't won awards, and most of them have won double gold. When we first started, as I said, we didn't have any money. My initial passion was whiskey, but to do whiskey, you need to invest in cooperage barrels, and you need to be able to not sell that product. Something else has to keep the lights on. We didn't have that other thing at the time. Just being a whiskey distillery was not possible. It's not possible to do that unless you're well-capitalized and come through the door with money. So the first thing we had to make was vodka, and the vodka we wanted to offer something a little different; we didn't want something that was filtered to death. We put out a full flavor vodka. That vodka immediately started picking up awards. We knew we were on to something because our process left over to this neutral spirit that didn't taste like anything, a kind of byproduct of making our vodka. We knew we needed to build something off of that. Then that something ended up being our gin. That was our second product. Our gin is a mash-up of different styles. I made hundreds of different variations before settling on the one we have, but it's essentially a Dutch gin botanical. It has a lot of juniper and other botanicals around it, including angelica root, ginger, and orange peel. It's distilled like a London dry, so it's not as heavy as a dutch gin. It's also macerated. Most gin you can put in can finish in a day, and ours takes a week. Most people think gin tastes like a pine tree, but there's more to it. There's an earthiness, and there's a sweetness. We can get that flavor because of the way that we distill it. It's not efficient, it's massively inefficient, but it produces, in my mind, a superior and unique product because we're not here to make something that's already on the shelf.
After that, we made an apple accord, which we can only make seasonally. We offer it year-round as long as supplies last. It is made with older heritage apples, mostly Haralson, but also Cortland apples. We don't use apples that have been developed in the past 20 years because they're all too sweet. We need baking apples, tart apples, and no preservatives or additives in anything that we make. There's never going to be an artificial flavor. We are all about creating spirits that are real.
The last liqueur is the coffee liqueur. We named it Café Frieda, named after a teacher of mine. The only discount that we ever give, and we'll ever give in our cocktail room, is teachers. It's always happy hour for teachers because they deserve a drink. They are the only people I know who are heroes by vocation, not police, not firefighters. They're doing their jobs. But teachers are heroes to me, so we decided to name this one after my favorite teacher, a particularly well-caffeinated individual. That coffee liqueur is a mix of cold-pressed coffee. We can make a super coffee with it because we don't want to dilute the flavor. Then there's also roasted chicory root in there, and we sweeten it as much as we need to find the right balance. We are always kind of hesitant to put too much sugar into things.
We just won double gold for both liqueurs in the best-of category for liqueurs. The last one is Mixed Blood Blended Whiskey. It's our whiskey that's blended with other whiskeys. The reason why it's called Mixed Blood speaks to another one of my pet peeves that became a pillar of a company, which is transparency. So few companies make everything and just slap new labels on it. We didn't want to be that. We wanted to be transparent and for people to trust what we did and know that whatever we put on that label, we are not trying to mislead you or lead you down a path. So when we decided that we would take the whiskey we had and blend it with other whiskeys, we needed to have a name that could identify with that. That's where we came up with Mixed Blood. It's a blended whiskey with our Longfellow bourbon. We take some other whiskeys that we think help balance it out to a very approachable whiskey.
What's your favorite cocktail?
Chris Montana: My answer never satisfies anyone. I love spirits, and I love trying them. I think everyone should try every spirit independently at room temperature in a glass with no ice. There are zero substitutes for that. Generally speaking, if you can't drink it that way, trying it is one thing; everyone should try it that way. Vodka doesn't need to be chilled, and your taste buds don't get any better when they're cold. Try it at room temperature in a cup, and it doesn't have to be a fancy cup. Drink it like warm water and see if you like the taste. If the answer is no, you shouldn't drink it in any other cocktail either because then all the cocktail is doing is hiding things. You should like the spirits that you consume. One thing that pushed me towards the recipe in our Fitzgerald gin is that I didn't drink gin. My wife did. She told me, "You need to make a gin." I said, "Yes, ma'am." So when I set out to get educated, I bought every gin I could find, and I made it into the drink that most people drink: gin and tonic. I noticed that I couldn't taste the gin, I could only taste the tonic, and it tasted like an alcoholic tonic. That defeats the purpose. Why spend any money on any good gin if you can't taste the gin? I wanted to make a gin that you would know damn well it was our gin. I wanted it to be big and bold. Otherwise, what's the point? I typically would try it with gin and tonic with my gin or just on the rocks with lime. If anybody's trying any Du Nord Spirits product and quite frankly any other product, it should be neat, nothing else going on, and just drink it. You don't need any special training or anything like that. Just drink it.
When you strip everything else down, that's, and that's what it's all about.
Chris Montana: Well, you know what's funny about this industry? It frustrates the hell out of me. When we open our cocktail, it's to be approachable because what we see in a lot of the cocktail culture is becoming less and less approachable. You could go to your local bar and get a mixed drink. But if you want a cocktail, it's almost like you already need to know something walking in the door. You had to have read up on the products ahead of time. It's a massive hole in the industry, and it does not need to be that way. You do not need to know anything. Most of us are just trying to find things that we like. You don't need a special glass. A lot of people are out buying some special glasses, why? A plastic cup will get the job done. The cup will not change the spirit's flavor, and I believe spirits should be good and accessible. Your average person should be able to feel confident picking it up and saying, "Yeah, I'm going to try this." The only reason I think they don't is because of the industry, and I understand why you do it because you want people to feel like this is just premium. It's worth the money, and it is all of that. But if it's not available to the common man and woman, who cares?
It seems like a big responsibility to create a product you believe in and then sell it to the masses. Is there ever any added pressure to keep producing the best products possible?
Chris Montana: Well, there are multiple ways I could look at that question. I don't feel any pressure to create anything new. I'm not trying to catch the next fad or be the next best anything. We make five different products. That's a lot. I speak to other distillers, and they're talking about how they have 45 skews and anticipate that it'll be over 50 and then over 60. If that's what you do, and you're good at it, more power to you. That's not me. I want to make the absolute best of everything that I have. If we put something out and cannot win a gold medal, we probably shouldn't be making it. Now I know there are Black cane farms that I want to work on because I want to make a rum. But you know, until I find the right partners to do that working directly with those cane farms, I don't feel any particular pressure. As far as staying at the same level of quality that we have now, yes, I feel the pressure. I think that our staff feels that, too. I'm not the only one who takes pride in what we do, and we have a fantastic team that is always looking to make things better. I think that's a difference between a craft distillery and one that's been around for 150 years. If you have been doing it for 150 years, the challenge is remaining the same. When you have a craft distillery, I don't care who you are; the first batch you put out should not be as good as a batch you put out eight years later. You should always be in the process of trying to figure out how you can do this better. Our gin is better today than when we first made it, and it's not created the same way either. It used to be slow because my steel was busted. Now, it's slow because my production manager came in and said, 'hey, we're getting better flavor off of this,' and if we do it this way and that's supposed to happen, you can see a progression. For me, It's not about trying to stay right there. It's about how we can make it even better? How can we make our vodka better? How can the whiskey be better? We're always experimenting. That's the fun side of it. Otherwise, it just becomes a factory, and you're cranking out booze, and who can get excited about that?
What's it like being the first Black owner of a distillery? Are there barriers you face being a Black owner of a spirit brand?
Chris Montana: When I started, I couldn't raise any money, and I watched people around me who were no more qualified raise millions. Walking into a room, nobody looked at me and said, that guy looks like a distiller. It's because they never saw a distillery owner that looked like me. After all, there couldn't have ever been one. Once you get past that, access to capital is a huge deal. It's tough to grow when you're behind the eight-ball on day one. There's no room for error., we spent years and years and years and years up until the last couple of years until COVID-19 hit and wrecked everything.
We lost money every single year. My wife was working a job. I was working two jobs. That's what makes it hard. We know that it's harder to raise money for Black people in America. A statistic states the average V.C. raise is about $1,000,000, but for Black women, it is less than $50,000. That's all you need to know. That, I think, is the most significant part. Once you get past that, I don't care who you are once you have a product in the bottle. You can be a Black brand, and If the product is no good, I'm not going to buy it. I don't care. I know some struggles you might have had to get open, but that doesn't mean I will spend my money on it or put it into my body if you don't make it quality. L once you get something in the bottle, it's up to you to take it from there. I think getting started is a hard part. That's the reason why we are doing all this work with business incubation. If we can incubate Black and brown-owned businesses, if we can get them over that initial hump, and get it to the point where it's just going to be about their work ethic and their creativity, then we can compete with anybody. that's why we're creating these food and beverage incubators all over the Twin Cities because it shouldn't be as hard as it was when we started.
Where can interested consumers find your products?
Chris Montana: You can order our products online in most states. You can go to our website or go to ReserveBar.com. We are going through a rebranding, which will move us from the Du Nord Craft Spirits to Du Nord Social Spirits. In the past year post-George Floyd, with all the work that we've been doing, the launch of our foundation, incubator projects, the social aspect of the company has become more important. We want to make sure that we tell that story. In the latter part of this year, that will be the name that will be out there. I'm very excited about that because it's hard to rename your baby. But at the same time, I just want to make sure that people know that. So that's where you can find us now. We distribute in Minnesota, California and Louisiana, and we'll be adding on. We have distribution agreements with about 10 other states, and we'll make more announcements soon.
Where do you see the company 5, 10, 15 years down the line?
Chris Montana: I want to continue to grow the brand. Once upon a time, I was very content to be a little company hanging out in Minnesota. Now, I use that company as an engine to fuel other work that needs to get done because nobody needs alcohol, but they do need to have an actual real equitable shot at the American dream. Now I'm not content with it being a small local company. I don't think anything less than a national company is acceptable. I believe that there is an interest out there in our stuff. Our staff does an excellent job. My goal is that, at least in most of the states in the country, you should be able to go to your liquor store and find one of our bottles. I'd like it to be more than just most states. I'd like it to be more like three quarters and then 10, 15 years, I'd like it to remain the same. Maybe somebody gets on their flight to France at some point, they can have our products on the flight, and then when they get to a bar in France, they can have it there, too. If we see that kind of success, that means that our foundation will do more positive work.
One of my fears of having a foundation is that I'm all about for-profit companies; that's how I want to do for people. I want them to build wealth for themselves. I fear with my nonprofit, with the Du Nord Foundation, is that if it becomes reliant only on donations, then we can be the flavor of the month, and then it goes away. Something else comes up, but the work will never stop in my lifetime. So by tying it to our for-profit business and using those profits to prop up and expand what the foundation does, that gives me a whole new drive. It also does the same for my team because, ultimately, none of this will work if they aren't on board.