Chris Montana isn't 100% sure how Delta found him.
Du Nord Social Spirits (formerly Du Nord Craft Spirits) is one of Minnesota's smaller craft distilleries, and as the owner, Montana never expected to hear from a company the size of Delta when they reached out last summer, wanting to forge a partnership.
He's still in a state of disbelief, even as vodka from his Minneapolis distillery begins selling from in-flight beverage carts Oct. 1.
"This doesn't happen," Montana said. "Small craft distilleries don't get placed on a major airline that moves millions of bottles every year. That's reserved for legacy distilleries and large companies. You couldn't possibly buy that kind of exposure."
"I can't overstate how massive of an opportunity it is," he added. "It means the world."
As in-flight beverage services slowly return to pre-pandemic levels, Delta is bringing Du Nord on board amid an effort to double its spending on Black-owned businesses by 2025, part of the company's larger diversity and equity initiative. Du Nord isthe first Black-owned distillery in the United States.
As COVID hit last year, Du Nord pivoted from spirits to hand sanitizer. Then, civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd made its way to Montana's Longfellow distillery. Du Nord's warehouse building was set on fire and subsequently flooded by its sprinkler system. In the days and weeks that followed, Montana and his wife and co-founder Shanelle Montana turned their brick-and-mortar location into a food and supplies donation and distribution center while launching a foundation to support the rebuilding of other minority-owned businesses that were damaged during the unrest.
"When we first started chatting with Chris and Shanelle and learned what they've been through and managed to do in 2020, we knew we had to partner with them," said Mike Henny, Delta's managing director of onboard services operations.
It took more than a year for the details to be ironed out, and for Du Nord to scale up its production to meet Delta's needs.
"When this opportunity came about, we realized there was no way, with our equipment and capacity, that we would be able to do all of this on our own," Montana said. "We've had to get creative about some ways that we do things."
Du Nord is working with Brown-Forman Corp., the makers of Jack Daniels, for packaging. As Montana searches for a new "forever home" for Du Nord's cocktail lounge in south Minneapolis, and works toward a distillery expansion in north Minneapolis' Upper Harbor Terminal, he hopes he can eventually bring the production fully in-house.
Montana stressed that Delta didn't have to choose his small business, but he's grateful they did.
"The easy path would have been to work with any domestic producer that has a known name, where there's no lifting to be done," he said. Delta "had to change some of their expectations, the timing of how things were going to go that couldn't be as fast as it could be with some other producers. So, this is a special event."
New label, new mission
The Delta partnership comes at a pivotal time for Du Nord, which is currently rebranding from Du Nord Craft Spirits to Du Nord Social Spirits and changing the labeling to put its mission — and its work via the foundation — front and center.
"It's not just about social in the sense of people getting together and enjoying spirits together," Montana said. "That's certainly part of it. But it's also social in the sense of, how are we doing something to effect social change? We wanted to keep ourselves honest, and we felt like the best way to do that was to slap it on the front of the bottle."
Coinciding with the Delta partnership, Du Nord is launching a new vodka, called Foundation. It is simpler to produce than the flagship L'Étoile, and less assertively flavored, making it primed to mix with the other beverages on the in-flight cart. L'Étoile, the first spirit Montana made, is being put aside for now.
"It has a special place in my heart," he said. "It will come back when we have the equipment we need to be able to produce it and actually have it be viable."
As for the new vodka, which will sell in-flight for $10 per 50 ml, Montana suggests ordering two. One to taste neat, and another to enjoy on the rocks with lime, or however you like to mix your drinks. "You can throw whatever you want at it," he said. "It'll stand up just fine."