America’s first Black-owned distillery resides in South Minneapolis
Du Nord Social Spirits is headquartered right in the heart of South Minneapolis. Chris Montana is the distillery’s founder and his wife Shanelle Montana is his business partner. Montana is originally from Indiana and came to Minnesota as an adolescent. He grew up in “mostly South Minneapolis,” he said.
.The influence of his family changed his life for the better. “It’s important to know that I was adopted when I was 14,” Montana said. “My dad had started his own law firm. I was offered stability that I didn’t have before—I don’t who or where I’d be if it wasn’t for that family.”
Before Montana became an entrepreneur, he aspired to become a lawyer. “I thought being an attorney would be the greatest thing ever, even when I was a kid. I ended up working in politics. I eventually came back to it,” Montana said.
Montana graduated from Hamline in 2013. He still serves in the capacity of an attorney while operating the business.
Du Nord Crafts Spirits was established in 2013. The business name was changed to Du Nord Social Spirits in February 2020. Montana said, “We changed it just this year but started that process last year really.” He added, “It was a rebrand process.”
Montana elaborated, “Halfway through that process, obviously, COVID happened right after we started, which shut us down, but then also George Floyd.” The unexpected events encouraged Montana to “refresh the brand” with new labeling.
Customers have a stellar selection of award-winning spirits to choose from. Du Nord Social Spirits (DNSS) offers five exquisite products, ranging from ‘Étoile Vodka (“Leh twal”), Fitzgerald Gin, Mixed Blood Whiskey, Café Frieda Coffee Liqueur, and Apple Du Nord Liqueur.
Although the pandemic and civil unrest caused an interruption in business, Montana never gave up. He said, “I thought that it had ended my business. There’s a series of events that you couldn’t have planned—COVID hits and our business was so heavily reliant on the cocktail room [that] we shut the room voluntarily.” But the unforeseen challenges didn’t stop the flow of business.
Pivoting to meet the times
When the distillery lost out on revenue, Montana created a way to save the business. He recalled, “I’m not independently wealthy; I don’t have deep pockets. So, I looked at that as probably the end of the road.”
However, a positive shift in business occurred when Montana chose to utilize the alcohol for hand sanitizer. “We ended up selling a significant amount, which got us through those days in the pandemic,” he shared.
Montana explained that the hand sanitizer production helped keep the business thriving and “allowed us to pay hazard pay to folks—our bartenders, we were able to bring them back and employ them in hand sanitizer production,” he said.
He added, “It was pivot or die—things just worked out.” DNSS is known as “the first legal Black distillery and the reason why we [say] that is because Black people have been distilling for hundreds of years. We’re the first ones that got the actual license and then distilled recognized by the United States government, but we’re not the first Black people to distill,” Montana said.
He continued, “So the purpose of the company now is we want to make that quality product; we want people to purchase the product because it’s a quality product and when they purchase, they’re also supporting the other work that we do, which flows largely through the Du Nord Foundation.”
The foundation, established in 2020, provides Montana with an opportunity to manifest change in the lives of other entrepreneurs. “It was formed as part of our efforts to raise money for other
businesses that were uninsured,” Montana said. The foundation has awarded a generous amount of grants to local business owners.
DNSS values social responsibility. “When we sell that bottle of vodka, we can take some of the money from that, put it into the foundation that then can help build business incubators help other businesses get over those hurdles that I had. If you can’t raise the money, we’ll help with that—we’ll give you a place
where you can do this work,” Montana said.
He added, “I love the spirits business, but at the end of the day, we make something that people don’t need. You don’t need alcohol—it’s fun, but you don’t need it. We need economic development, but we don’t need it in a way that we’re asking for it; we need to be taking it and if you want to take it, you’ve got to own that business.”
Montana had words of encouragement for others entrepreneurs and youth. “You gotta dream. I think most people go through their lives trying to live somebody else’s life and get to the end and they’re not with what they have.”
He added, “I wanted to be a business owner but for the longest time I didn’t know what that business was gonna be—but if you have that idea, make it happen.”
Du Nord Crafts Spirits is located at 2610 East 32nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55406. (Note: The Cocktail Room is currently closed, but spirits are still available in stores).
For more info, visit www.dunordcraftspirits.com or call 612-799-9166.
Ashley Lauren is a contributing writer at the MN Spokesman-Recorder.