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Du Nord opens MSP's first micro-distillery cocktail room

Chris and Shanelle Montana with their son, courtesy Peter Callaghan

Chris Montana gets helps from his friend Mark

On Friday at 4:00 p.m., the Twin Cities’ newest micro-distillery will open MSP’s first cocktail “tap” room. Entrepreneurs Christopher and Shanelle Montana, owners of Du Nord Craft Spirits, have created a bar with windows looking into their distillery inside a former Motoprimo store in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Bartenders will serve craft (and classic) cocktails made with the Montanas’ own L’Etoile Du Nord Vodka (named for Minnesota’s state motto, L’etoile du Nord or “The Star of the North”) and Fitzgerald Gin (named for author F. Scott Fitzgerald). Enthusiasts will also have a chance to join Du Nord’s cocktail club, a short-term promotion ending January 12, with three levels of patronage.
Du Nord doesn’t have a kitchen. But a food truck will be on hand. And visitors are welcome to bring in takeout. “We’re surrounded by a lot of good food here in Longfellow,” says Christopher Montana, from Parkway Pizza to Le Town Talk Diner to Midori’s Floating World.
In addition to brewing the booze, says Montana, he also built out the cocktail room with help from his father-in-law Mike, a Minnesota farmer who grows non-GMO corn for Du Nord. The two men constructed the tables and the bar, and crafted window moldings from barn wood gathered from a tumbled-down structure on Mike’s farm. With polished concrete floors, exposed ductwork, and several couches in addition to tables and chairs, the Du Nord lounge has a casual feel.
“We want people to feel comfortable having a drink and socializing,” Montana says. “We didn’t want the cocktail room to be too rough-edged, like a beer tap room, but not snooty either. The whole point is the room should be comfortable, not intimidating.” The lounge is also about sampling the goods. “We’re a distillery first, but we want people to taste our booze,” Montana adds.
Du Nord has been bottling since May, producing “several hundred cases of booze a month,” Montana says. By February, he hopes to be distilling whiskey, as well.
Distributed by Phillips Wine and Spirits, Du Nord has “a heavy presence” in the Twin Cities, Montana says, and can be found throughout Minnesota—particularly in the western part of the state, home to sugar-beet producers. “Sugar beets and corn are the backbone of what Northland farmers do well, and both go into our booze,” Montana explains.
When he begins making whiskey, the rye will come from a central Minnesota farmer “who was at our wedding,” Montana says. “We like to work directly with farmers, without a middleman.” Pictures of the farmers the Montanas source from will adorn the walls of the cocktail room because “we want people to know who grew the products we use.”
Prior to starting Du Nord, Christopher had meticulously home-brewed beer for about 10 years. He worked for Wellstone Action, Democracy for America and now-Congressman Keith Ellison. “I was [Ellison’s] field director during his first campaign and helped set up his office in Washington D.C.,” Montana says. After graduating from law school—where he picked apart the Surly Bill as part of an agricultural law class—he worked at Fredrickson & Byron, taking a leave of absence to open the distillery.
His wife Shanelle Montana has a graduate degree from American University in D.C., and is an associate in regulatory and legislative affairs for EDF Renewable Energy. The couple has a 13-month-old son. “We both have demanding jobs,” Christopher says, “but we’ve always thought it would be fun to own our own business. Du Nord is one of the best things we’ve ever done.”
In December 2014 the Minneapolis City Council approved Du Nord’s cocktail room, following passage of a new state law allowing distilleries to sell and serve their product onsite. Du Nord’s vodka has “a vanilla flavor to it, it’s a little heavier, smooth,” Montana says. “We don’t add anything to it, we just don’t strip out the flavor. I like vodka that tastes like something.”
Du Nord’s gin, he continues, has a louche quality, meaning it gets cloudy when cooled or added to water because of the higher ratio of juniper oils. “We want flavor in our gin, so it’s louche,” Montana says.
Whiskey is Montana’s drink of choice, however. Forget the old adage that only the best whisky comes from Kentucky, he says. “They take our corn, turn it into booze, ship it back to us and we pay a premium. Whatever they do there we can do better here. So let’s do it here!”
By the end of 2015, Montana is hoping to triple production. “What we can make in a year is what the big guys spill in day,” he says. “We are still just a drop in the bucket. But for this area, we’ll be able to meet demand.”
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