Chris Montana’s Du Nord Social Spirits was the first Black-owned distillery in the United States—and just launched the country’s only four-crop vodka.

As a successful attorney, Chris Montana had a job that many people would have envied. Yet it didn't fulfill him. Then he stumbled into the world of distilling—right on the cusp of the craft distilling boom. Almost 10 years later, with the help of good people and his stubborn curiosity, Montana can claim the country's first Black-owned distillery, Du Nord Social Spirits. He also has a foundation that invests in leaders of color and just launched a new four-crop blend vodka (and canned vodka sodas) sold across the Midwest.

Chris Montana headshot Du Nord
Credit: Ken Friberg

What pushed you to step into the entrepreneurial world and eventually open Du Nord Social Spirits?

A confluence of factors. I had begun working at a large law firm in the Twin Cities. I had the job that all my friends and colleagues would have loved to have had. At the same time, I didn't see a path for myself to being happy. I had also just had my first son, and being a guy who grew up without a dad until I was adopted at 14, the workload I had wasn't palatable for me to spend enough time with my son. I was thinking more and more about finding something that I was proud of doing, but also something that would give me some control of my time. Ultimately, I ended up working much harder as a small-business owner than as an attorney, but the hours I worked and didn't work were in my control.

Du Nord Whiskey bottles and hands
Credit: Ken Friberg

What did the first year look like for the distillery?

It was a mess. At the time, Minnesota didn't have any other microdistillers, so we didn't necessarily have a market. In one sense, that was a blessing because we were the only craft-distilled vodka in the state. What we rapidly learned is that the distribution process doesn't benefit the actual producer. Most of the money that you pay for the bottle on the shelf doesn't go to the actual producer. I was working as a lawyer during the day, would change into coveralls to protect my suit pants, and would go to the distillery to work during the night. And then I would start all over the next day. I mostly lived at the distillery for a year or two. In those early days, it was an absolute grind that I wouldn't recommend for anyone. 

Bottles from Du Nord distilling
Credit: Ken Friberg

Your latest project, American Liquor Co. Vodka, is a collaboration, blending vodkas from different Midwest distilleries in the same way that some whiskies are blended. Tell me about it.

The whole premise of the brand was focused on Midwest makers. The idea that we could come up with a product that could at once, be unique, but also help to raise up other craft distillers was really attractive to me, so I jumped on it. Each of the grains in the four-crop blend do different things but also share similarities, which is what makes it so hard to balance. 

Corn has a natural vanilla flavor to it and is naturally sweeter. That sweetness is pretty prevalent within the spirit. Potato has an earthiness to it, and depending on how it is distilled, it can have a variety of different flavors come out of it. Having those two heavier mouthfeel spirits together can be difficult. Those two are kind of a backdrop against what the entire spirit is built upon. And then we have two soft spirits. Wheat is typically more tart, but also has another vanilla note that plays together with the corn. The last bit is rye, which adds in a little bit of spice and adds depth to the spirit overall.

You opened Du Nord Social Spirits in 2013. Let's flash forward to 2020 when COVID hits. The pandemic meant so many things for different people. What did 2020 look like for you and your business?

There are two things that come to mind. Going into 2020, most of our revenue came from on-site sales from our cocktail room. When that shut down, that was, in my mind, the end for us. As a last gasp, we thought of making some hand sanitizer with the alcohol we had for first responders in our community. As it would happen, people figured out what we were doing and came looking for hand sanitizer for their families and communities. Of all random things, hand sanitizer is truly what pulled us through 2020.

The second thing that affected us was the murder of George Floyd. The precinct where the protests were centered was on the same block as Du Nord. After the fires, we sustained some damage, lost access to about half of our space, and lost 100 percent of our inventory. It was unfortunate, but we fared a lot better than other businesses. Because of what was happening in the area, we ended up starting up an operation that would later turn into the Du Nord Foundation to get supplies and groceries to people in the community. From a business perspective, 2020 was a shock. And in our case, it was a shock that we needed. It shifted us from the retail mindset to a wholesale mindset and helped us see what work we could be doing in our community.

What kind of work is the foundation doing today?

Our long term goal is about changing the face of the business community. It was my belief then, and still is now, that one of the reasons business corridors take the brunt of civil unrest, like they did in 2020, is because people don't recognize themselves in those corridors. As someone who opened the first Black-owned microdistillery in the country, I know what that is like. It shouldn't be that hard to start up a business and own being the face of your business. The goal that we are now shifting to is about making it easier, particularly in communities of color, for people to start up their own small businesses and to receive the support they need to be successful and confident in that.