One thing Chris Montana wants you to know about his illustrious path to distilling is that he never planned on doing any of this.
“I don’t come from a long line of distillers,” starts the Minneapolis native. “I took my sweet time in college as an English major, went to law school, worked as an attorney for a hot minute before heading to D.C. to be a congressional aide. None of those things gave me control over my own time and none of them gave me any sense of satisfaction. So yeah, I took the non-linear path to distilling.”
Chris Montana founded Du Nord Social Spirits to open the door for people who’ve traditionally had that door shut on them — something Chris experienced firsthand. Growing up in Minneapolis, Chris and his friends felt a disconnect with the businesses around them – a result of decades of institutionalized segregation and disenfranchisement.
“I was never one to see the world in black and white,” says Chris, “I knew a business owner couldn’t automatically be bad by virtue for simply being a business owner.” It wasn’t until he met his partner that the vision of Du Nord Social Spirits came to fruition. Chris says the couple felt that inspiration take hold after seeing firsthand how the intrinsic relationship between spirits and soil can bring people together.
“She grew up in rural Minnesota on a farm, I grew up in the city, ” continues Chris,” and the distance between rural and urban is massive in terms of understanding and Du Nord became a way to physically bring the farm into the city. We had that little bit of arrogance where we were like ‘‘f*ck it – if everyone else can do this, we can too. And better’”
With no money, no loans, and encountering countless obstacles along the way, Chris and his co-founder and spouse, Shanelle, opened up Du Nord Social Spirits as a tangible way to bridge the urban-rural divide and diversify the industry.
Fueled by the promise of care, craftsmanship, and inclusivity, Du Nord Social Spirits quickly made a name for themselves with the distillery’s Mixed Blood Whiskey winning Double Gold at NYC’s illustrious International Spirits Competition.
The struggle to get Du Nord off the ground wasn’t easy. Along with the typical struggles any founder could face, Chris recognized discrimination as it happened.
“I never had the experience of anyone telling me, ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you can’t do that’ because that’s not how it shows up.” Instead Chris and Shanelle saw it manifest in ways most people of color face when trying to open a business – banks wouldn’t give them loans, investors wouldn’t return their calls.
The surprising – and ultimately encouraging – detail Chris made sure to come back to is that it is slowly but surely getting better for Black-owned businesses within the spirits industry.
“If I were a younger Black man or woman or other person of color looking to get involved, I would say it is night and day better than it was. Ten years ago, we didn’t have programs like the STEPUP Foundation, we didn’t have the Nearest & Jack Advancement Initiative, we didn’t have Pronghorn; we didn’t have all of these groups that are putting money into seeing these entrepreneurs and these brands grow.
At the same time, Chris is vehemently against the accepted zeitgeist of blindly supporting brands because of who’s at the helm.
“I don’t like the idea of people buying brands simply because of who owns them,” says Chris, because if it’s okay to do that, then it’s okay to not do that.” Chris maintains the importance of holding Black-owned businesses like Du Nord to the same set of standards as anyone else.
“You have to take both sides of that blade. I like the idea of people seeking out these brands and trying them. And if they’re not good enough to get you to buy ’em again, it doesn’t make you a bad person, but try ’em the first time. Like, give them that shot. Because if they are a brand that’s owned by a person of color, then odds are it’s an undercapitalized business.”
Chris’ advice is to get out there and try. Try the products, volunteer at the nonprofits, do something to be part of the solution.
In the wake of George Floyd, Chris and Shanelle opened the Du Nord Foundation to, not only, address racial inequities but also build economic justice in the Twin Cities through immediate relief and long-term investing in entrepreneurs and business leaders of color.
“There’s value in having more actual distilleries that are owned by persons of color. It’s not about the alcohol industry, it’s about the communities in which the foundation is doing work. And right now that’s Minnesota, but the goal is for it to be every community that we sell a bottle in, we should have some impact in that community. We shouldn’t be celebrating those stories and saying, look at how great that person is. We should be asking, why in the hell was it so damned hard?”