Husband and wife owned Du Nord Social Spirits got its start in 2013 from humble beginnings, using the corn from Shanelle Montana’s family farm where she grew up to make the first batch of Vodka. Over the next eight years they’ve grown out of that supply but have expanded their product line and their staff and are now building an even larger distillery in Minneapolis.
In an exciting pitch competition among six competitors, a panel of wholesaler judges found Du Nord Social Spirits Owner Chris Montana's pitch worthy to advance in the tournament bracket and on to the Championship competition on September 14, 2021.
We wanted to learn more about this success story and share it to inspire others. Here’s our Q&A with Chris Montana immediately following the Vodka and Gin Brand Battle session.
Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA): Tell us about your full product portfolio.
CHRIS MONTANA: Today we're showcasing our vodka and gin (those are the first two products that we made) the vodka came first the gin second. We also, although it wasn't showcased today, we make an apple liquor and a coffee liquor called Frieda. It's named after a high school teacher of mine. As it happens, you know fun trivia, that the only discount we ever give is to teachers. I think they deserve a drink!
Then we also do a whiskey. It's called Mixed Blood and that's a blend of our whiskey, along with other sourced whiskeys and we call it mixed blood, because we want to be transparent something's that is missing in this industry.
WSWA: You made a really good impression on some of the nation's largest wholesalers, what can wholesalers and even retailers expect from you and your team?
CHRIS MONTANA: We’re a small company that is used to being able to be very close to our consumers and we want to continue to do that in any way that we can—that's both through an online presence but also physically being out and getting into the space; that's a challenge when you're growing rapidly, but I think that for a brand like ours, although we lead with flavor, the only way to know what it tastes like is if you taste it.
But then we also need to tell our story, and we need people to understand what the full picture is. To do that we need to be in those markets and that's our intention. We want to be in the markets, we want to be alongside distribution partners, we want to support and build this brand. I think we have a zealous group of people at Du Nord who are really excited to build this brand and what we need partners. And that's the thing: we're not looking for anyone to do this for us; we're looking for people who can help us.
While I know Minneapolis very well, and if you want to know where to get a good drink or to find you know really good food I can tell you, I don't necessarily know every city in the nation. But that's what distributors know, that's the information that they have and so we're looking for someone that we can walk hand in hand with to really grow this brand.
WSWA: Now What? Take us from where you started as well as where you want to go. What are some of the goals you have for your brand?
CHRIS MONTANA: Well, our goals are both tied to the brand and also tied to our foundation. We come from humble roots here. We got a $60,000 loan from a community development organization that's what we started this business with, and if you know anything about starting distilleries it's not enough money. I tell other people don't do it, you know because it's it was an absolute grind building most of the stuff by hand and figuring it out. It makes for a good story, but it really shouldn't be that hard and that's part of why our focus is on the foundation.
Sales from our for-profit company goes to our nonprofit company and lets us help to make it a little bit easier for other people coming through the door with our business incubation sites and it also in some cases, you know, food security is just a basic a basic human need, and so we work on that as well.
I see no reason why we shouldn't be shooting to be a national brand - I don't know why you shouldn’t be able to find our products in any state in the nation, and if we reach that kind of success, then that means that we're going to be able to do a lot more work with the foundation.
WSWA: You shared your story today with the judges and really won over a lot of people. As America's first black owned distillery, tell us what you hope for as your brand grows throughout the United States. As you start to meet your goals and benchmarks, how is that going to help transform the world into a better place, and perhaps empower other distillers of color?
CHRIS MONTANA: Well, I don't think it'll do anything on its own, I think it takes people pushing. The old king quote is 'the arch of time is long, but it bends towards justice' - our approach is that it only bends because people push on it. We see that we have a role there.
I'm sure there were many black folks distilling well before us. We really shouldn't have been the first [black-owned] fully licensed production distillery actually distilling product. That tells you all you need to know. As we grow, we don't hope for anything to passively happen. We are going to be intentional about keeping that door open.
The good news, the best news, is that we aren’t alone in that. I used to be the President of American Craft Spirits Association; they’ve been instrumental in forming the Step-Up Foundation which is helping to get underserved communities into the industry, and they aren’t alone. The larger legacy distilleries like Brown-Foreman, Diageo, Bicardi and the like has actually done a lot of work here, and in many cases is ahead of the craft distilling industry and they deserve recognition for that. The Nearest and Jack initiative has been critical in helping us through a really tough year and they’re helping a number of other companies.
That’s what’s going to make a change - not just that there will be “A” black-owned distillery that may find some success, and while I hope we do - that's the exception- we want the rule to be that anybody can get into this industry. For that to happen we need all of those people pushing. I’m just glad to be one of them.
WSWA: Du Nord Social Spirits had an intense last year – during the competition you said you are located blocks from the site of George Floyd's murder and that social justice demonstrations, fires and dealing with the ongoing global pandemic nearly forced you to shut down. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
CHRIS MONTANA: I mean the pandemic -I thought it was over. We shut down our cocktail room and for people who aren’t as familiar with craft distilleries, cocktail rooms are key because distribution is tough to get and even if you get it…it’s tough for these little distilleries to grow in that environment so when we had to close the cocktail room… that was sixty percent of our business. There was no way wholesale was going to keep up. We closed it voluntarily and then two days later the governor did it for us.
What COVID meant for us was constant change. We've been moving from crisis to crisis for the past year. I think that one of the big differences between the larger, more established brands and the craft ones is that when you have that distribution, then you are diversified. You can take a hit in one area but that's not going to bring you down. Most of the craft space and distilleries like ours, we're really focused. We're in one little spot so it really should have killed us. We're only here because so many people stepped up to help us and get us to this point.
The response to that which is not just me, and I always want to make sure people understand that the team that works at Du Nord are some truly remarkable people. Du Nord literally would not exist today, but for the fact that some of those folks came back against my wishes and put out signs saying it was ‘black-owned’ and that was the only reason why the entire distillery wasn't burned down.
You know that that team, we got together and said look we've got some booze that's if we're going down, we're going down swinging - let's make some hand sanitizer - it’s what people need. And it was common, a lot of other distilleries make the same choice nationwide. And so, what COVID meant for us was constant change. We went from thinking we were just dead in the water, so we made some hand sanitizer and gave it to some police departments, Meals on Wheels and some homeless shelters, and then it ended up being what sustained us through. And then, when that fell of it was PPP and some of these other programs.
WSWA: You tell a great story you put together a really good pitch. What are some tips you would give other folks out there who are going to have to pitch their spirits product, or quite frankly, any product? What are some key elements that you put into a pitch?
CHRIS MONTANA: What I find is it easiest is when you talk about something that you care about. Not to not to be overly you know vulgar about it, but there's a lot of BS – you know everyone has to say it's a quality. Nobody says their spirit isn’t quality. They mix well – no one is going to say the spirit is terrible. There are certain things that everyone's going to say.
I think that what's important when you're telling your story to anybody, in a competition or something else, is to focus on what's the human side. For us, people are what make our distillery interesting and what we, try to do with our people, and what we try to do for people. I think if you can tell a story that is that that accentuates the human side people can connect with that where it's hard to connect with you know kind of rote puffery.
WSWA: What type of predictions (or do you have expectations) for the final round?
CHRIS MONTANA: It's 2020-2021, predictions are useless! I have no idea. Here's what I can say - I sat and watched everyone's pitch today and I want to go meet some of these people. It really was impressive and by the end of it, I was happy that I had an opportunity to present and fully ready to type in ‘Congratulations’ to whomever the winner was because every single person was well deserved, and I assume that the other categories are going to be the same. The only thing that I'll predict is that if it's anything like what we saw today, then the quality of whoever wins those categories is going to be amazing. I think it's worth everyone tuning in and looking at these brands because, even if they don't win, Good Lord every single one of them really deserved to get their brand placed on the pedestal and promoted across the country.
Watch Chris and the rest of the Vodka/Gin Category Competitors pitch our panel of industry experts HERE.