Chris Montana is used to being an innovator—the industry veteran became the first Black distillery owner in the country when he opened Du Nord Craft Spirits (now Du Nord Social Spirits) in 2013, which he still owns and operates. It’s no surprise, then, that for his latest project, the Minneapolis native and current New Orleans resident set the ambitious goal of reimagining how vodka is made. The result? American Liquor Co. vodka, produced with a unique four-crop blend of Midwest winter wheat, light rye, Rio Grande potato, and white corn, which makes for a multilayered tasting experience like nothing else on the market. We sat down with Montana to get his take on the forward-thinking new spirit.
Vodka gets a bad rap for having little character. What inspired you to try to make a different kind of vodka?
Our founders came to me with the original idea, looking for my expertise to execute and make sure the final product was exceptional. It’s a special project because it’s entirely novel in a spirit category that doesn’t see tons of innovation. It was also a rare opportunity for a handful of award-winning distillers to collaborate. I jumped at the opportunity to help craft something that engendered a kinship between the participating makers. It’s also a vodka with a real sense of place. You often hear of this spirit being neutral etc., but we wanted the drinker, if they were so inclined, to be able to pick out the notes of each distiller’s contribution. These are all Midwest crops from Midwest makers, so it’s intrinsically tied to the region.
How would you describe the flavor?
It has character. Not so much that it’s punching you in the face, but rather presenting a harmony of flavors from the base ingredients. You can taste berry notes of the wheat, sweetness from the corn, pepperiness from the rye, and full, grassy earthiness from the potato.
What’s currently your favorite way to drink it?
I like to drink vodka straight, and American Liquor Co. is uniquely well suited to that since there’s so much to discover. That said, if I’m mixing: vodka over rocks with a lime or lemon (maybe some soda water if I’m feeling fancy).
You’re known as someone who speaks up for other players in the industry, particularly underrepresented voices. Why is that so important for you?
When I started Du Nord, I didn’t know I was the only Black distillery owner in the country, but that fact was soon made very clear when I went to conventions and stood out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t a good feeling. When groups of people are underrepresented to that degree, it isn’t an accident, so the only way to actually change the status quo is to actively work at diversifying the industry. Put another way: We don’t need people talking about the lack of diversity, we need people acting on real change. The race of the person who mashed the corn, distilled the product, or owns the company should be irrelevant, and it would be if that person was not a unicorn in any of those jobs. That is my goal: to grow diversity within the industry to the point that no one will ask me what it is like to be a “Black distiller” or ask a woman what’s it like to work in this male dominated industry. I don’t believe we will reach that goal quickly, but with real actions, that future could be true for my kids, and that is both why it is important to me and why I have no time to waste.
What can we expect in ’22 from American Liquor Co.?
The brand is growing and the feedback has been really positive from consumers, liquor stores, and bars. As more people learn about this unique collaborative vodka, I expect to see the brand grow into new states in the Midwest.