Distiller Profile: Chris Montana of Du Nord Craft Spirits

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Chris Montana inside the Du Nord Craft Spirits cocktail room // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

Many of us are content in finding a steady job and settling into a comfortable routine. Chris Montana, on the other hand, has a voracious appetite for new disciplines.

“My general philosophy on life is that you should do everything. Try to do different stuff because so many people live other people’s lives without really knowing it,” says Chris. He’s tall, broad-shouldered, and self-assured, and grew up in the same Minneapolis neighborhood where Du Nord Craft Spirits is located.

Chris’ philosophy led him to the stage of his high school theater program to conquer a fear of public speaking, into a judo ring during college to learn a martial art, onto the rugby pitch after college, onto the ballroom dance floor, to the campaign trail and eventually Washington D.C. as a congressional aide, to a law office in Minneapolis, and finally back South Minneapolis where he started Du Nord Craft Spirits with his wife, Shanelle Montana.

Sitting at the edge of the couch at the front of Du Nord’s cocktail room, Chris looks like he’s part of the place, and in a very real sense he is. He’s here seven days a week, mashing, fermenting, and distilling—his spare time reserved for bottling and labeling, receiving deliveries, and lending a hand in the cocktail room.

“Now I don’t do anything fun. I play hockey, because I can do that at night. But this place just eats you alive,” Chris says with a half-smile. In a good way though, right? “Eh, in a way. It’s the best job I’ve ever had, but there’s nothing I’ve ever done—I was an attorney, I worked on a congressional campaign and campaigns are notorious for grinding people up—but there’s nothing I’ve worked on as hard as this place.”

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The still at Du Nord Craft Spirits // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

For most people this would be the sure-fire recipe for burning out. But Chris is not most people. When he chooses to pursue something, he devours it whole. That’s not to say it always goes down easy, however.

In 2006, Chris found himself in Washington D.C. working in the congressional office of Congressman Keith Ellison, who Chris had helped to win Martin Olav Sabo’s house seat. Chris was the president of the college democrats at the University of Minnesota before leaving school and landing a job at Wellstone Action where he worked in 2005, but D.C. was a whole other beast.

“I got out there and thought, yeah, I probably should never have come. This isn’t my thing,” Chris recalls. “I wasn’t that good at it. You know, I didn’t graduate from the [University of Minnesota]. I was a decent talker, but there were a number of hard skills I didn’t have. […] I would write letters and the commas would be in the wrong place.”

Instead of giving up and moving home, Chris left the congressional office in 2007 and returned to college at the University of the District of Columbia to shore up those deficiencies. By the time he graduated, Chris had a 4.0 GPA and earned a full-ride scholarship to Hamline University’s law school.

“I don’t think I got any smarter from college one to college two. Just in college two I knew what I needed to do and I knew what I wanted,” Chris explains.

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Chris Montana // Photo by Kevin Kramer, The Growler

It wasn’t until 2013, though, that he knew he wanted to start a distillery. Chris was back home living with his parents, working at Fredrikson & Byron, and doing “law school like a maniac—again, no social life, no talking to people,” he recalls. His friend and classmate fomented the idea in Chris by suggesting that he look into the laws around microdistilleries. In the span of two weeks, Chris, who was an avid homebrewer of more than a decade and had toyed with idea of opening a brewery, did some research and made the decision to start the distillery. “That was February [2013], and in August we had a lease on this place,” says Chris.

That summer was dedicated to creating a business plan and moonshining in his garage. Chris knew he would need money to get the venture off the ground and that meant continuing to work at the firm, but a sobering “oh shit” moment hit Chris like a ton of bricks when he realized the bar exam was just a month away. “A prerequisite of working as a lawyer is passing the bar,” he says, with a wry smile growing across his face. “And I didn’t study for the bar at all, all summer long, because I was working on my business plan and I was in my garage moonshining, making booze.”

After a month of the most intensive studying he’d ever done, Chris passed the bar exam and continued working at Fredrikson & Byron. For the next nine months, he lived a double life working as “Lawyer Chris” in the law office from 7am to 7pm and working as “Distiller Chris” at the distillery until 1am, only to do it all again the next day. And things haven’t slowed down at all since.

Next page: Du Nord’s plans for expansion

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About Brian Kaufenberg

Brian Kaufenberg is the managing editor, writer, and photographer at The Growler Magazine. His column "Now Open (Or Damn Close) keeps you up to date on the newest breweries in Minnesota.