Behind the Brand

Behind the Brand: Chris and Shanelle Montana

Co-Founders of Du Nord Social Spirits


What happens when you build a distillery in the city you love with a focus on not only being a part of that community but fundamentally shaping its fabric and future? That is where Co-Founders Chris and Shanelle Montana found themselves with Du Nord Social Spirits and the Du Nord Foundation. We sat down with Chris and Shanelle to learn more about this astounding work in spirits and within their community.


Chris: I had always kind of wanted to do something in beverage alcohol; I thought it was going to be beer because that's where my head was. I’ve been homebrewing for a long time, not like anything all that serious, but serious to me; you know, I was a fastidious homebrewer. But it just didn't seem right for beer. At the time, it seemed like there was a brewery opening every other day; there were too many of them. Of course, now, there's probably twice as many as there were then, and they're all doing well. But it just seemed like it was getting saturated, and where beer was at the time just didn't fit with the kind of stuff that we liked to drink.

So, a buddy of mine suggested that I should get off of this beer thing and start looking at microdistilleries. On the coasts, micro-distilleries had been going for some time, but in Minnesota, we had some pretty bad laws, and they had only recently been changed. He knew that, and he let me know. Within a couple of weeks, I was trying to get her (Shanelle) to say, “Okay, let me do this thing.” Shockingly, she did. Then it became a kind of a husband and wife thing that we jumped into, and I was more on the technical side of things in production and making stuff, and she was the marketing side of it. We both kind of wore a lot of different hats until we reached a point where it was pretty clear that one of us had to quit their job to do this. It was kind of my baby, and so I quit my job. Shanelle had less and less of a role in large part because she has a full-time job, and not to mention at the same time, about as old as a distillery is our oldest son. So we had our hands full.

Shanelle: I'll give you my short version. Chris came home from law school after he'd been interning at the firm and was increasingly convinced that law firm life wasn't for him. He had heard from a friend that there was this wonky licensure situation with microdistilleries and that they were changing the laws. And he said one night, “Hey, did you know that a Minnesota Microdistillery has reduced license fees?” I said, “Okay, great.” And then, like three days later, he said, “Hey, did you know that Minnesota microdistilleries have a decreased license fees?” And I said, “Okay, great.” And then he said it the third time, and he said, “Maybe we should start a microdistillery.” I, again, disregarded the comment.

And then he came back and said, “What if we started a microdistillery that included local grain and local connections to farmers and things like that,” and I perked up. And I said, “Let's talk about it.” I think a lot of things have evolved from there. It's not as clear and simple as saying everything's hyper-local anymore for a number of reasons, but from my standpoint, the ability to have a new industry that incorporated a lot of rural products, with a lot of urban approaches and progressive mantras, things like that was paramount. Combining that rural and urban culture was really important to me and was sort of the hook for me to continue to investigate this.


Chris: It remains important to us. In the past couple of years, we've gone through a lot of changes: some things happened to us, and we've also made some decisions. We're not able to operate our Minneapolis facility in the way that we did the first six or seven years. Now we've got a footprint in St. Paul, too. What's important to us is that we've made an investment in the Twin Cities area, and we've made an investment in Minnesota. The heart of that investment really goes to – how can we be a positive influence in that community?

That commitment isn't going anywhere and never will. That gets to the work of our Foundation. Ultimately Du Nord is a small company; we're going to impact the Twin Cities community by fostering inclusivity and also helping those other people who have that dream of business ownership to get their start. So that, I think, is going to be the long-term and enduring commitment that we have to the Twin Cities area.


Chris: I know I just answered the last one, but I feel like I have to answer this one. Because here's the thing; operating a business as a couple is absolutely awful. And I do not recommend it to anyone. It's tough because, first of all, we're rookie business owners, so we're making mistakes left and right. We started with no money, none at all. So we put this together; we literally built it with our own hands. And that causes an awful lot of stress.

Chris and Shanelle sit on their front porch and pet their dog.

In 2013, we'd been married a couple of years at that point, and we've got a new baby. We had recently bought a house that's over 100 years old, likely closer to 120 years old, so of course, we have house projects. We had three trees fall on our property, with two of them hitting our house, so we had all these things that are going on in our life, and then we add this business to it. And the thing about owning a business together is if that's your work, then you can't escape your work. If you've got a disagreement about something that you're doing in your business, it follows you home because the home is also your workplace. Right? So that's tough. It's a difficult thing.

I know that there's a “right” answer to that question, and I know this isn't it. But it was difficult. What I think was good about it is at the very beginning, Shanelle and I have very different approaches to things: I'm kind of the “let's jump off the cliff and just see what's at the bottom,” and Shanelle is more calculated. I have pretty much no aesthetic sense, and she's my opposite and can see things and say, “well, that doesn't balance or that doesn't look right.” Things I would never have noticed. So we were able to play on those strengths at the beginning. And we really had no choice. It's not like we had consultants or anything. But it was a tough grind.

We had to get to a point where we figured out how we make decisions. How can we resolve an argument that relates to Do Nord so we can get on to the other discussions that we have that relate to our life? Whether we were both actively at the distillery or making decisions, it took the family, it took the two of us, to get Du Nord to where it is every step of the way.

Shanelle: We're both fairly hard-headed so that decision-making process was important, and recognizing each of our strengths. We have encountered a number of really just bizarre, odd, sad, dramatic moments. If you think of the life of Du Nord and the ups and downs of it, it's had a lot of just odd things that have occurred. Whether it's been making hand sanitizer during COVID, or the murder of George Floyd, or being one of the first Minnesota distilleries and sitting there with twelve permitting agencies trying to figure out what to do and how to get a microdistillery permitted in the State of Minnesota.

Whatever it might be, I think we've accomplished all of those things and gotten through all those things, and been able to provide positive change with all those things because we were able to work together on it. And I think we both are fairly good at saying, okay, well, this is the situation, and we can't change the situation; we can't change COVID. But here's how we can react to it. And here's how we can quickly adjust.


Shanelle: I can take it. I don't think we always did. I mean, we looked at a number of different ways that microdistilleries exist throughout the years and said, “Okay, we could focus on a product right? This could be our flagship product.” We went back and forth on that. A lot of people were going into whiskey; there were obviously a lot of economic constraints that we were encountering with whiskey early on. We started with a gin and vodka, like many microdistilleries do, and have now evolved to a couple more things.

We listened and watched. Who was drinking our product, who was coming in our cocktail room and what were they reacting to. From there, we narrowed it down a little bit. Our gin and vodka are still favorites, with the vodka particularly still being our number one product at this point. But I don't think we would have expected that when we started.

Chris: We did not have the resources of the other microdistilleries that people were walking into. And I think that from the consumer standpoint, they just kind of assume that if you own this business, you must have all the resources that you need to run this business. Well, the truth was that we really didn't. There was a period of time in there where I was working full-time as an attorney; she's working full-time as a developer. And then we're also doing this thing where when she takes off her developer hat, she puts on her marketing hat, and I go to the distillery, and I start grinding up corn. We didn't have those resources, so starting with vodka made sense, and going to gin also made sense.

A bottle of Du Nord Prominence Gin is picked up from the bottling line.

We've had a pretty simple rule that we make what we like. And as long as we like it, then we've got a passion for it; we're not just cranking something out, to crank it out, because we needed to support a bar program or because it was the next thing that we haven't made. We have to like it. And we got to our fifth product, and we stopped. And I think five is a lot, right. But I would rather be really good at making those five than decent at making forty. And there are other people who have the staff, and they have the expertise, and they can have those 40 SKUs, and I say more power to you. And I'm sure that all forty are fantastic. That's just not how we want to run our company.

Shanelle: There are things that our staff will make that we love. I’m thinking of that ginger thing that we did that time or the spicy pepper stuff. But the idea of adding that to the plate right now, and the idea of really putting in the time or attention and love that it would need to make that a thing, is just not something we have.


Chris: Our vodka formula changed a little bit, but in most cases, they are the same releases with a new look. It's like many things with Du Nord; we started with one goal, and then events happen and it kind of shifts things around. We originally started because we loved our packaging, but we kept having people express this disconnect between what we made and who we were. Our name wasn't really that prominent on the bottles while the product name was. So people thought Fitzgerald Gin was made by the Fitzgerald distillery, and well, no, it's made by Du Nord. That was the very practical reason why we started down the road of a rebrand, so that way people know what we make is who we are.

We started in earnest in February of 2020, but the next month COVID hits and derails everything. We have a designer, we're working with her, she's still on staff. And COVID derails that project. Then we get into hand sanitizer, so we're hardly a distiller anymore; we're basically just filling a need for public health reasons. And then you have George Floyd. And the thread that has always existed at Du Nord is it once we realized the position that we held within the industry, that being that it's not a particularly diverse industry, we have from that point forward used our business to try to diversify the industry. And that’s how kind of behind the scenes we did things.

When we get to May of 2020, and you have George Floyd murdered, it was a kick in the ass. It made us reassess; what we're doing that might be good. We have tried to hire people of color and women because they're underrepresented in our industry. But we're a small company, right? That's not enough. It's not enough to just do that. We need to be bigger than that. But we are constrained by time; we have three kids, we don't have time, but we want our kids to live in a world where George Floyd isn't murdered. And so we need to be more active. The result is that our rebrand takes a little bit of a turn.

Du Nord Mixed Blood Whiskey is prominently displayed on a table filled with snacks.

I'm careful when I talk about this because we didn't discover that work in May of 2020. We've been doing it since before, but in May of 2020, when we created the foundation, we saw a new path for ourselves. While we've always been about what's in the bottle first, but when you take that next step behind the bottle, then it's about what is our impact in our community. And we need to stop being quiet about it. When we changed to Du Nord Social Spirits from Du Nord Craft Spirits, yes, we make a spirit, and spirits are kind of a social lubricant, but really it's about the social impact that we want to have. And we wanted to stick it right on the front of the bottle; 1. So people knew that that's what we're about, and 2. To keep ourselves honest. Because the day that we aren't doing that work, someone's going to call us out on it.

It's about us putting it out front, saying this is who we are, and this is the work that we're doing. We're not going to be quiet about it; we're not ashamed about it. We're going to name our problems, and we're going to do some intentional work about it. That gets you to the name, while the colors and everything are a whole different thing. I just really like purple.

We need to be bolder, right? We want to stand out, and that was the goal there. We had a lot of help in that process, so I'm very happy with where we landed. But it's important that people understand that Du Nord is not a company of “this moment” because I know that in the past two years, we've made progress in ways I didn't think that we're going to see. While that's outstanding, we didn't discover this in the past two years; we just took it to another level.

Du Nord Apple Liqueur is shared along with apple pie

Shanelle: I think that the rebrand also symbolizes a little bit of our own evolution. We got to a point throughout 2019, or maybe even a little before that, where it was like the stop and go of what are we going to do with Du Nord? We knew we had penetration through Minnesota, but we're hesitant to dive in because we don't have enough economic stability to make a huge splash into a number of other markets. We want to grow, but how do we do that? How do we get outside of just our little bubble?

One of the pieces of feedback we were often getting was that our marketing's cute, nice and crafty, but it might not be a national look. It fits really well in Minnesota, and when we were making it, that was really our lens — what's going to get us in the Twin Cities? — and that's what we created. So we had to start taking this broader lens and so as we were gearing up for that in late 2019 / early 2020, it really was thinking with that broader lens. And then as Chris said, COVID. It went from full speed ahead, need deliverables, to “Oh, my gosh, are we even going to own a distillery in a couple of months? Put the brakes on, we can't spend any more money. We don't know what's going to happen.” Like every industry was at that time.


Chris: It's interesting to think of how it started because we had some damage in our facility, and we had some press about it, people found out, and seemingly overnight, we had these GoFundMe campaigns pop up, and they're raising real money. For people who aren't from the area, the area that we're in is this Lake Street corridor that was a blighted area that got revitalized largely by the immigrant community in the Twin Cities. And many of them have stories similar to ours, where they started a business and they were undercapitalized and had to make hard decisions. And one of the decisions that you often make is to be underinsured or uninsured. We knew that a lot of those businesses were uninsured or underinsured, but we had insurance and didn't want that to turn into a windfall. So we created a separate fund, trying to raise $30,000. And a couple hours later, we had raised that.

Eventually, we changed the GoFundMe to $100,000, so we could focus on other work because at the time, we were running a food bank out of our recently burned warehouse. And it just kept going and going and it raised over $800,000. At the very beginning, when we were sitting in a hotel room in Bloomington because my apartment had been set on fire. And while in that hotel room, we kind of had these three pillars figured out, and still to this day, those are the three things that we started and focused on.

The First Pillar being that we had a short-term need, or what we thought was a short-term need: Food. All of the places where you buy food were all gone, either burned or looted. While folks who had transportation and had a little bit more money, they could go out to the suburbs and find what they needed. For everybody else, they were screwed, so we jumped in with two feet. Our distillery was set on fire on Thursday night / Friday morning, and by Sunday, we were running the food bank out of it.

Pillar Two, which is where the majority of the money went, was to support other businesses that didn't have insurance. That was a short term thing; we wanted to get money out fast, with as little of a process as possible, outside of us meeting directly with people to make sure their needs were legit. But we want the checks to get to people quickly, because we know how long these things can take, and we didn't want to see those businesses be lost in the wake of George Floyd; it would be a dual tragedy. Through this process, we gave out over $750,000.

Then the Third Pillar was that we had to change this conversation; we’ve got to change the actual landscape. It's not enough to keep putting band-aids on things; we need to do something that's lasting. That's where we had the idea to get involved in business incubation for BIPOC entrepreneurs, because this story that we often tell about how difficult it was to get started, you can hear that same story from any number of other BIPOC entrepreneurs who have tried to get a business going because people don't look at us and think yeah, that's somebody who's going to be able to succeed here. So we should make that a little bit easier.

Chris Montana dumps a barrel of whiskey into a stainless steel vat to prepare it for bottling.

We have been working on and working with other partners to develop a business incubation program that will make it that little bit easier. We are focusing on food and beverage and making it a little bit easier for those entrepreneurs to move forward. We had figured out all three of those programs in their skeleton form that morning in that hotel room. Since then, it has grown and morphed to a point where what we thought was a short-term need was actually a long-term need. The Du Nord Foundation Community Market is still operating today, and it still operates under the same philosophy that there shouldn't be a lot of barriers; you identify that you're in need, we believe you. So come on in, and we'll give you what we can. We make sure that we're buying food that’s appropriate to each community and food that people want, that it’s good quality food; not everything out of a can, but also fresh fruit and vegetables.

Then we're also continuing to work on that incubation project. We're in negotiation with property owners to find a space where we can drop this in and have it be a physical place where people can go and be connected to some of the other resources that exist in the Twin Cities, and also have a physical place where they can start their business.

Another thing that gets missed a lot is that for two weeks, we ran a food bank, and I'm so proud of the work that we did during those two weeks; we had 300 volunteers. We went from a truck full of stuff showing up and a line full of people trying to get hygiene products and diapers to a fully operational five-day-a-week food and supply shelf in a day: that's just the difference between Sunday morning and Monday morning. And that happened because we were able to reach out to some friends of ours who had a background in organizing and people volunteered their time, volunteered from morning ‘til night, trying to design this thing, making sure we had what we needed. It was a massive volunteer effort. The staff of Du Nord at that time was three. There was myself and two other people in production. That's it. So we couldn't have done it; it would have been physically impossible for us to pull that off. But I think that Du Nord really became a focal point through which the community could do something; could come together. Everyone had this energy in the city that they wanted to do something; we're watching the city that we love burn, and we became a place where people could put that energy and put it towards something positive.

Shanelle: At this point, it's almost like what we're trying to figure out now with the foundation is the long-term goal and trajectory versus the short-term need, and make sure that if there is a short-term need, we're filling in but also trying to think long-term with it. With the funds that we have available, how can we make the biggest impact, maybe not tomorrow, but in a year or five years? I think that's what we're wrestling with the Foundation right now. And then also what is the Foundation's long-term relationship with Du Nord? We have connected it to our Foundation Vodka, which was rebranded, and I think the question that’s coming is what impact will that have on the foundation? What will it allow it to do? I think we're not quite at a crossroads, but we're at the strategy point of this process. You know, before it was, “the house is on fire, how do we manage it?” And now it's “okay, how do we think strategically in an informed way about the direction that we should go?”


Chris: One of the advantages that the foundation has is that it has the backing of a for-profit company. While we renamed the vodka to the Du Nord Foundation Vodka, it’s really the sales of anything that we make that impacts the Foundation. The entire company has a commitment to the Foundation and seeing it survive, thrive and have a real impact. That gives us an advantage over similar initiatives out there, in that as long as Du Nord is doing well, then the foundation's doing well.

Du Nord Foundation Vodka is poured into a martini glass.

Also, every place in America right now has a local vodka and has a local gin, probably a local whiskey, and infinite other products. So why does anybody pick ours up? Obviously, it's a quality product. But there is also this piece of what's behind it. There's nobody in the world today that necessarily needs alcohol; it's a fun thing, but it's not a need. But if you can, while you're out there, make that purchase that will also support real people. And you know that those are funds that are going to put food on people's tables and to help other people realize their dream of entrepreneurship and business ownership; to me that is a powerful message.

That's always going to stand behind the brand on the Du Nord side. And the Du Nord brand is always going to stand behind the Foundation to make sure that those two things keep going.


Chris: Depends on what you catch me with. I'll let Shanelle answer that first.

Shanelle: The Pronounced Apple Liqueur. I love it in the summer. I love it in the winter. I love it in the spring. To me, it's an easy thing to drink. You can have it on the rocks, or you can warm it up. Whatever you want to do with it, you can mix it with something, and it's always delicious. I'm not a big fan of super sweet liqueurs, and I feel like it has a good balance. But it is still a little desserty; it's a little sweet but not overpowering. Yeah, that's my favorite.

Chris: Again, it depends on when you catch me. Obviously, I have a very strong connection to Café Frieda. You'll notice as we went through, the Apple name changed, the Vodka name changed, and Café Frieda did not. Café Frieda didn't change because that's honors a woman who’s meant an awful lot to me and a former teacher of mine and friend of mine, Louise Borman, who her students knew as Frieda. So obviously, I have a very deep connection to that. And when we went through the rebrand, I said, “Yeah, anything's on the table, but you can't touch Frieda.”

As far as the thing that I drink day-to-day that I would sit down with, it's probably our Gin. Part of that is because of all of the products that we make, the toughest ones were the whiskey and the gin. And the gin took forever to get right. We made 28 versions of the gin, but those were just the versions that we let people taste; we also probably produced another 100 distillations of different individual botanicals to get to what would go into those 28. The Prominence Gin, formerly the Fitzgerald Gin, is the 27th formula that we made. Maybe it still has that place in my heart because it was just so damn difficult to make in the first place. I think that it stands up, partially because it has flavors in it that I can't find in any other gin. I don't find that deep, sweet Juniper flavor that exists in our gin.


Shanelle: For me, there's one thing that comes to mind. Chris and I could only have gotten Du Nord this far with the amount of support that we have received from the distilling community, from our staff who are incredible, from our friends and neighbors; that support has made Du Nord possible. The two of us could never have made Du Nord what it is without all of that support. I know that sometimes small business owners, and even as we get discouraged, when you go through a lot of ups and downs and sometimes it's good to step back and think, “okay, like, what can I control?” Because it’s actually very little sometimes. But really, what are all the other influences that are helping my business? How can I play off of their strengths? And I think it's just important to recognize all the support that we've had in our community.

Chris: I would echo that. In a very practical sense, we would not exist today but for the intervention of a number of different things; everything from a US Senator helping us get our EIDl loan noticed, to the Nearest and Jack Initiative stepping in and helping us with that rebrand that we talked about, to the distillers of the American Craft Spirits Association banding together and raising $100,000 to help us rebuild after the fire. Those are all things that we wouldn't have expected. But if they did not happen, we're not here talking to you today.

Chris Montana smiles as he looks around the distilling floor

The other thing I want to get out there is that yes, we're a spirits company, we're a company, we're a small business, and the best business decisions that we've made are when our first step has been towards our community. We were undercapitalized, so we only existed because we had a cocktail room in South Minneapolis where people don't put things like that. But we put it there because we know that South Minneapolis supports its own and so for those people saying “I could go to this other flashy bar, but I'm gonna go to Du Nord instead, and I'm gonna hang out there.” If it wasn’t for their support, we never would have made it to 2020.

It's that support from the community that infused in us this understanding that we're just part of the community. We don't exist on top of it, or outside of it, we're just part of it. So when the community hurts, we hurt too. When we have the opportunities, we always think about what's the thing that our community needs first, and that's not always a sound business decision. We shut our cocktail room before there was an order to shut the cocktail room because our staff didn't feel safe. We started making hand sanitizer, not as a commercial venture: we made a whole bunch of it, and we gave it away. And then it turned out that people found out we could make it and then they said we'll buy it from you. But our first step wasn't about this new business angle; it was what needed to get done.

When we did the food bank, or the food shelf, post-George Floyd, it wasn't because we thought that would give us press; it was because it's what needed to get done at the time. But those decisions that we made, put us on people's radar, and that now gives us some of the opportunities that we have today. Now we have a growing company, and a company that is outside of just Minnesota and is on ReserveBar, and people can get it all over the country. And if they're flying, they can get it on Delta Airlines any place in the United States, and soon internationally.

We got there, I think, because as a business we saw ourselves as a part of a community. And we were going to do well when the community did well. And we would do poorly when the community did poorly. I've met a lot of business owners who share that mindset. And a lot of that mindset, I know I have taken from other business owners and in their comments in the way they dealt with the devastation after George Floyd, but I think it is a viable business model. And I think you could take that mentality and you could put it in any business anywhere, and that will work. It may not be short-term profit, but it will be to the long-term benefit of the community and therefore to the long-term benefit of the company.


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