Lifting as They Climb
Chris Montana, co-founder and co-owner of Du Nord Craft Spirits in South Minneapolis // Photo by Kevin Kramer
Du Nord Craft Spirits is more than just the nation’s only Black-owned microdistillery; it’s a force for systemic change in the East Lake Street community.
Chris Montana has the easy laugh, clear-eyed vision, and optimism you’d expect of someone who hasn’t a care in the world. It’s certainly not the demeanor you’d expect of someone who had both his business and apartment building set on fire in a riot during a global pandemic.
Yet, Chris is all of those things at once, and more; that’s exactly why I think his ideas on rebuilding and reimagining the East Lake Street community he calls home are notable.
I first met Chris in 2015, when he and his wife Shanelle opened the Twin Cities’ first distillery cocktail room at Du Nord Craft Spirits, which is also the first Black-owned microdistillery in the United States. As a student of Minneapolis South High School, Chris hung out with the theater kids to overcome a fear of public speaking, received his law degree from Mitchell Hamline School of Law, and decamped to Washington, D.C., for a stint on Capitol Hill. After returning home to work for a local law firm, he and Shanelle made Du Nord a reality, distilling grains grown on the family farm in central Minnesota.
For these parents of three young kids, the killing of George Floyd is yet another heartbreaking reminder of the danger that all Black sons and daughters face in America. And yet the riots and material losses that followed Floyd’s killing leave room to hope that we’ve reached a societal inflection point.
“Maria [a member of the Du Nord distilling team] talks about how we’re a team of misfits, you know? That’s what Du Nord has always been about. And it just felt like a gut punch,” Chris recalls.
“But then you start to put it in the perspective—that I think is easier for me to do now, because I’m a dad—[of] ‘what if this was the cost that we had to pay?’ Majority America has to show up and understand that there is a real problem here. If that happens, then okay, that’s the price you pay, and we’d pay it 100 more times.”
“If we build what we had, then we’re no better off”
Montana’s vision for the East Lake Street business district goes beyond just the physical rebuilding of Du Nord and the other buildings destroyed. His goal is to create more opportunity for Black, Brown, and Indigenous business owners than was there before.
“If somebody were to say, ‘Here’s 10 million dollars; build Minneapolis’s destination distillery.’ [I’d think] ‘Okay, cool.’ My staff will grow, and I will personally benefit, but what about everybody else?”
Instead, Montana would like to see recovery funds used to create a commercial district that also serves as a wealth-building engine for the BIPOC community. Diverting a small amount of the business profits from those that rebuild in the neighborhood, and benefit from recovery assistance, could fund new incubator spaces on the same block.
He imagines workspaces—commercial kitchens, artist and office spaces—that house pop-up concepts to help entrepreneurs get a foothold in the community. With more-established businesses nearby to initially draw customers to the area, the hope is that these nascent enterprises grow and find success quickly.
“Have those new businesses just pay what they can—tie it to revenue. Eventually, if they’re doing well, they’re going to start paying what market rate is. The moment they do that, start a six-month clock; say ‘Alright, you’re going graduate! We’re now going to kick you out, and we’ll help you find a new space and get situated over there.’ Then, during that six months, we’re going to look for somebody new to come in.”
Montana is already laying the groundwork for his plans. His first step was forming the Du Nord Foundation, designed to help create real economic empowerment for the Twin Cities’ communities of color. Du Nord’s Riot Recovery Fund is now part of the foundation; at press time, it had raised almost $750,000, which will be paid directly to businesses in need within the East Lake Street community.
Going forward, Montana says that “Du Nord, the business, can shift some of its profits into this foundation, and then we can use that to work on some of the things that we’ve been talking about here.” Early conversations between Montana, business owners, and construction firms have been promising. “If we use the energy we have right now, get some of those dollars committed, we can build something pretty cool. I don’t see why not.”
Café & Cigarettes
This martini-style cocktail uses Du Nord Craft Spirits “Café Frieda” coffee liqueur and mezcal to create a rich, full-bodied sipper with a hint of smoke, that’s perfect for fall.
1½ ounces mezcal
½ ounce Du Nord Café Frieda Coffee Liqueur
1 teaspoon sweet vermouth
1 dash Angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients together in a mixing glass with ice, and stir for 10 seconds. Strain into a chilled Nick & Nora or coupe glass to serve.