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The grain to glass distillery movement is thriving in Longfellow

Posted on 21 November 2017 by calvin

Article and photos by STEPHANIE FOX
When Chris Montana (photo right) grew up around the Longfellow neighborhood, in apartments just off Lake St., few would have guessed that he would become a maker of high-end vodka.

He attended South High School before heading off to college for a degree in English. He then spent time working with Wellstone Action leading to a job with Representative Keith Ellison’s office in D.C. Inspired by the political life, he applied to Hamline Law School, was awarded a full Presidential Scholarship, and graduated four years ago.

He joined Fredrikson & Byron law firm, and like many young lawyers he ended up working 12-hour days. But, he still found time for his hobby of home brewing. “I am a fastidious home brewer,” he said. “I like porters and stouts; I’m not into IPAs.” It was a good life, but it took an unexpected turn, thanks to his brewing hobby.

In 2011, Mark Dayton signed into law “the Surly Bill.” The law allowed production breweries to sell pints of their own brew on site. The number of breweries in Minnesota started to grow, from 30 to more than 100. But, said Montana, “While people focused on the beer, but there was a micro-distillery provision in the law,” lowering the license fee for distilleries in Minnesota from $30,000 to $1,000 for small distillers.

“I got this idea, and it just morphed,” he said.

Montana shared his idea with his wife, Shanelle, a Minnesota farm girl, whose parents Mike and Mona Evens still grew corn on their farm near Cold Spring. It was decided the family would open up a craft micro-distillery. The Montanas would run the distillery in Chris’s beloved South Minneapolis, and the Evans would grow the corn that would become vodka, gin and more. It would be a real farm to glass production.

Montana procured a $60,000 loan from Seward Redesign, a neighborhood-based non-profit development consortium. They chose the name Du Nord (French for ‘north’) in honor of Minnesota and the region, planning to locally or regionally source their ingredients, whenever possible.

Montana bought equipment and started setting up stills in the industrial neighborhood between Hiawatha and Minnehaha Ave. on 32nd St., sharing a building with Shega Foods, an Ethiopian injura bakery. (This will be important, later).

Then, he said, he had to negotiate his way through a maze of regulations and rules. Some days, he’d leave the law firm, driving to the soon-to-be distillery, to meet an inspector or another official. “I had to come down here, take off my jacket, put on coveralls, then change back.”

It was too much. “I had a brand new kid; I was sleeping 2-hours a night. I was under-capitalized, creating a new business. But, I jumped in with both feet,” he says. He left the law firm in 2014 to become a full-time distiller.

When Du Nord Craft Spirits opened its doors in 2013, it was the first mini-distillery in Minneapolis, joining the new move to high-end craft vodkas and gins that began with the 100-year old macro Minneapolis distillery Phillips, that introduced the first American fancy vodka, Prairie Vodka, almost ten years ago.

Phillips sells an estimated 1.5 million gallons of alcohol of various types every year. Micro-distilleries like Du Nord have to keep their production below 20,000 proof gallons to keep their $1,000 license. In the future, if they grow to produce up to 40,000 proof gallons, their license cost would double. (A proof-gallon is the equivalent of a gallon that’s half alcohol and half water.) This year, Du Nord has turned out about eight thousand proof gallons.

Montana had learned about the science of distilling, he says, but what helped the most was his understanding of the law and the lobbying process. While the tax laws for distilleries had changed, spirits makers were still not allowed to sell their products on site. The Minnesota Distillers Guild, whose president was Du Nord’s co-owner and wife Shanelle Montana (also a professional renewable energy and public policy advocate,) lobbied to change that.

In 2014, the state legislature passed a liquor bill finally allowing distillers to open cocktail rooms, a distiller’s version of a brewery taprooms where distillers could sell shots and cocktails to show off their products.

It’s an important part of marketing for places like Du Nord, says Montana. “The cocktail room generates income and gives people access to your product. If we didn’t have the cocktail room, we wouldn’t exist.”

“Someone might spend a couple of dollars to try a new microbrew, but $30 for a bottle of vodka or gin, that’s a different threshold. But, if they have a chance to try it in a cocktail, they might want to splurge on a bottle. It’s a way to say, here’s a product and here’s how to use it.”

Small distilleries are in a unique market category, Montana says, based more on getting people to make a move from standard drinks to high-end craft products.

“Big Liquor, they have their own market. We don’t compete directly with them. We don’t even compete with other local micro-distilleries like Tattersall. We both need to let people know we exist. We all need to pick up the customers who are new to the craft products. If someone is breaking away from big liquor booze, they might try Tattersall, and next time they will try Du Nord.”

A couple of years ago, Montana talked his in-laws into switching their corn crop to a non-GMO variety. The corn gives the product a slight sweetness not found in regular wheat distilled alcohol. There are bins of corn, ready to be milled down to flour and made into mash. They use a cold cook process, a fermentation process that takes longer than hot methods.

“The corn is hard,” Montana says. “It doesn’t accept water in the same way as many other grains. It takes 8-days to cold cook rather than a couple of hours.

“Corn has a lot of oil and not much protein. The alcohol binds to the oil, so you get a lot of flavor,” he says.

Du Nord’s Cocktail Room, which opened on Jan. 9, 2015, is a relaxed and cozy space that serves mixed drinks at tables or the bar, with a view of the distillery through a set of windows.

L’etoile Vodka has a complex flavor caused by the corn-based unconverted sugar. Fitzgerald Gin, the name inspired by the iconic local novelist, has 80 pounds of botanicals like angelica, juniper, coriander seeds, and lemon, in each batch. Both received gold medals at the Denver International Spirits Competition. They also serve silver medal winner Apple Du Nord, a 30 percent concoction reminiscent of apple pie.

There’s Café Frieda, a new coffee-flavored liquor named after one of Chris’s high school English and theater teachers, a mentor, he says. In her honor, he gives a $2 discount to teachers.
Du Nord may soon be coming out with their own bourbon-style whiskey (name yet to be chosen) and a pear brandy.

Montana is also interested in creating more exotic versions of booze. Du Nord’s next-door neighbor, Worku Mindaye, owner of the injura bakery, Shega, returned from a trip to his homeland with a bottle of a local specialty liquor, arque. It’s a traditional smoky, grassy tasting drink, made over open fires in clay pots, mostly in villages and mostly by women. But, it’s unclear how to proceed, since there are no clear rules for making arque. It’s even unclear what the base grain (wheat, sorghum, maize?) might be. Montana’s on the lookout for more information, he says. “There might not be a big market for it, but it would be fun to make.”

For now, the cocktail room is open, and Du Nord’s bottles are available on the shelves in local liquor stores. Montana foresees a healthy growth in micro-distilleries for the next decade. He is also spending time traveling to D.C to lobby for tax breaks for businesses like his. And, he keeps busy with his three young children, one only 3-months old.

For now, the cocktail room outsells the distillery, but he is confident that this will flip. Micro-distilleries and Du Nord, he says, are in it for the long term.

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