dunord family

North Star

At Du Nord Craft Spirits, a husband-and-wife team shows off Minneapolis-made spirits and Minnesota pride.

For Chris Montana, a distillery wasn’t in the plan. He’d thought about opening a brewery, something for five, 10, or even 15 years down the road. But in 2013, a conversation with a law school friend sparked an idea: a microdistillery. Although craft breweries had begun sprouting in Minneapolis, craft distilleries had yet to take off. And Montana and his wife, Shanelle, were perfectly positioned to fill that space.

Shanelle grew up on a farm in Cold Spring, Minnesota, about 80 miles northwest of the city. Her parents, Mike and Mona Evens, still worked that land, and the corn they grew could serve as the base for spirits like vodka and gin. 

“It just seemed like the perfect fit: We could use the corn from that farm, bring it into the city, and help to bridge this urban-rural divide that she and I, in some ways, represent,” says Montana, who grew up in Minneapolis. “I suppose the pieces just fell in place and Du Nord was born.”

It’s a casual—Minnesota nice, you might say—way to describe how Du Nord Craft Spirits opened in 2013 in Longfellow, the same neighborhood where Montana grew up. In reality, opening a small business wasn’t so serene. “Any given day,” he says, “you look up and say, ‘Good Lord, what have I done?’”

For Montana, it had meant leaving a career as a Minneapolis attorney. It’s easy, he points out, to say the hard work was worth it when you’ve come out on the other side. But when you’re in the weeds, a support system is essential—and when you’re running a business with your family, it’s built in. “It gave me the opportunity to spend more time with my father-in-law and get to know him better, and that’s been a positive for me,” Montana says.

Today, Du Nord is an award-winning distillery that prides itself on using local ingredients and connecting local spirit lovers. The cocktail room, added in 2015, allows the Montanas to serve seasonal drinks featuring the products made on-site.

Montana serves as Du Nord’s CEO and head distiller, while Shanelle juggles the administrative side of the business and a job in the renewable energy industry. Together, they handle hiring decisions and raise their three young kids, ages 1, 3, and 5.

Although working with your spouse can have its complications, the pair tries to keep their work and home lives separate. “At the end of the day, whether you like the decision that was made, they’re still going to be there,” Montana says. “You’re not going to lose your best friend over it. That’s the most important thing.”

Since 2013, Du Nord has released six spirits, each made with non-GMO corn from the Evens’ farm and named for an influential Minnesotan. With each one, the Montanas have sought to create both an authentic flavor and something not already on the market. “Everything we make, we want to be the best at making it,” Montana says. “So we move a little slower.”

There’s a sense that Du Nord not only does things a little slower but also a little differently. Chris and Shanelle have looked to build a close-knit community that celebrates Minnesota’s strengths and its people’s differences. 

Since sugarcane thrives in warmer environments, you won’t find Du Nord dabbling in rum. But the apple liqueur is made with fruit from an orchard in Lake City, Minnesota, and the state’s penchant for growing corn and rye is reflected in Du Nord’s products. Even the distillery’s name is a nod to Minnesota’s motto, “L’Étoile Du Nord”—the star of the north.

With an eye to the lack of diversity in the spirits industry, Du Nord encourages underrepresented communities, especially women and people of color, to visit and work at the distillery. Montana, the president of the American Craft Spirits Association, says he knows of just three black-owned craft distilleries—including Du Nord—of the 1,800-plus recognized by the ACSA. “If we’re missing an entire section [of people], then we’re missing out on a ton of ideas,” he says. “If you don’t see yourself in the industry, people can tell you, ‘You can be that,’ but you don’t see yourself. You have to see an example, and you have to know there’s an open door.”

Together, the Montanas have created a welcoming space that hosts everything from trivia nights benefiting local organizations to an annual “Dude Nord” party in honor of The Big Lebowski.

It’s all part of Du Nord’s ethos: to connect the urban and the rural, make quality spirits, and facilitate good times. It’s a mission Montana hopes he and Shanelle can one day pass on to their children.

“At this point, they love coming to the distillery because they like sitting on the forklift and finding ways to relocate things,” Montana says. “But when they get old enough, I’d love for them to carry it on. Because I think we do things a little differently here, and I’d love to see that keep going.”

Melissa Flandreau is an editor of this magazine. Email her at melissa.flandreau@paceco.com.

Photography by Kevin Miyazaki

Originally Published December 2018