Distilleries Making a Difference in DEI

Diversity, equity, and inclusion means many different things to many different people. The beverage alcohol industry has gone through some growing pains as it strives to answer the question, “what will DEI look like in the coming years?” Each tier will have to put forth a unique vision, created to best accommodate the niche of the industry that it occupies.

On the supplier front, craft distilleries such as Du Nord Social Spirits produce high-quality products on the foundation of a diverse and informed workforce. Minneapolis-based Du Nord features a core line-up of five spirits: gin, vodka, whiskey and two liqueurs.

Chris Montana, founder and distiller of Du Nord, recalls his impetus to enter the spirits business. “At the very beginning, the idea for Du Nord boiled out of a frustration regarding a business I wanted to start but thought I couldn’t  —  a brewery. A friend suggested that I should look into distilling,” says Montana. He and his wife Shanelle went on to found Du Nord Social Spirits.

“It was a good mix of my interests, which was the science of distilling and brewing, paired with my wife’s interests, which was addressing the gap that existed between urban and rural communities. This was a way for us to bridge that gap.”

“[Du Nord] happened very quickly and without very much money,” he recalls. “We did not and do not have any investors in the company, so we were massively undercapitalized. My wife and I both had day jobs, and at that time, we also had a new baby, so we would work nights at the distillery. It was not an easy path.”

The distillery faced numerous hardships along that path, even as it’s found a stable and successful foothold in 2022. When asked what the most enduring challenge has been, aside from the pandemic, Montana said, “it’s always been about access to capital. As we’ve learned, it’s very difficult to be a medium-sized distillery: you’re either very small or very large. Part of that is because it’s hard to find the funds to grow.”

When you’re first setting out, Montana notes, “it feels like you’re always one mistake away from Armageddon. That’s changed over the years: Du Nord is larger than it used to be, and we have more flexibility and capability than we used to have, but we’re still a small company and we will still face challenges regarding capital.”

The easiest way to mitigate such pitfalls is bringing on investors, certainly easier said than done. And doing so can lead to its own difficulties.

When weighing the benefits of investors for Du Nord, Montana erred on the side of caution. “Culturally, it’s extremely important to me that the basic tenets that I think have made Du Nord worth owning and a place worth working for stay intact,” he says.

“We’ve had investors approach us, but it’s not a function of just going out and getting cash. We’re not interested in that. We prefer to go out and get partners, partners who understand that our model is effective for bringing new people into the industry and changing how we think about the industry. Someone who’s just looking to make money and follow the old patterns, they’re not a good fit for us.”

The distillery balances a tight budget by keeping its spirits profile rather lean. “We pick what products to make based on what we like,” Montana says. “We don’t make things that already exist. When we did the two liqueurs, the apple and the coffee, it was because those were liqueurs that we thought could be better. The versions that were out there, we didn’t really like. Then we stopped there. At the beginning, we didn’t have the capacity to make 15, 20 spirits. In the end, it was a blessing because instead of trying to get good at making 20, we got great at making five.”

Despite this, Du Nord isn’t afraid of experimentation. “I think you have to; it’s what makes distilling fun, making new weird stuff. We have a number of products we’ve made but we just never released them. I won’t say we’ll never come out with a new spirit, but right now that’s not where my focus is. Now, I’m really focused on scaling the five that we have, which is challenge enough.”

A Smart, Diverse Team

Du Nord Social Spirits is mindful of its products, and it’s also mindful of the people who make those products. Chris Montana set out to make a point about the type of people he hired.

“We hired people who were smart, not necessarily people who already had the skills to do the job we hired them for. Many of our bartenders come in having never poured a drink before, but we can teach them. In production, we never hired a single person who had worked in the spirits industry before,” says Montana.

“In fact, every single person that works for Du Nord today has come from outside the spirits industry. We bring them in based on the fact that they’re smart people and then get out of their way. We respect that they can figure things out and we can benefit from their new perspective. When you treat people that way, it permeates the entire company.”

Along with a workforce of diverse perspectives, the distillery supports diversity through its Du Nord Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing racial inequities and building economic justice in the Twin Cities through immediate relief and long-term investing in entrepreneurs and business leaders of color.

“We had a GoFundMe campaign to help out other businesses around us, and it was extremely successful. So, we realized that we needed to create a nonprofit so this money we raised can actually go to the business that need it. Once we had that, we got three different questions: the issue of food and supply security, because we didn’t have that at the time; small business support, getting those businesses around us the funds they needed even just to stay open; and this last piece about business incubation.”

Today the company focuses on the first and third questions, Montana says. “We have the Du Nord foundation community market; if people are experiencing food insecurity, they can reach out to us. We continue to work on and develop the business incubation side. That’s a longer-term project but there are some promising developments on that as well. We’ve secured a building in South Minneapolis to incubate new business with a focus on getting underrepresented communities to be a little better represented.”

“It’s not just about selling booze,” Montana says, “it’s also about creating something that people do need and making a positive change.”

Opportunities for Those With Disabilities

Another craft distillery, Beyond Distilling, distinguishes itself for its mission to employ people with intellectual disabilities. “It is incredibly important for all industries to employ these individuals, as it provides equal opportunities,” says Tyler LaCorata, co-owner and distiller at Beyond Distilling. “Research has shown that this reduces turnover within the workforce.”

Located in North Charleston, SC, Beyond Distilling features three spirits.

Located in North Charleston, SC, Beyond Distilling features three spirits. One is a 90-proof wheated bourbon, aged for four years in 53-gallon new American white oak barrels with char #4. There’s also a white rum flavored with natural coconut flavors, and a tropical-style gin made with watermelon, papaya, mango and pineapple.”

LaCorata says he and cofounders Kerianne Krause and Ryan Sadis had the idea of creating a company “where they could allow themselves to make products that they wanted to drink in a space that enables all people to do work they could be proud of.”

The three were working in different industries, LaCorata says. “Ryan and I worked in multiple distilleries prior to deciding to go out on our own and take ownership of our recipes and concepts. Kerianne came on with her experience and knowledge owning a business and working with individuals with disabilities.”

When talking about diversity, those with disabilities can be overlooked. It’s important to remember to account for all manner of diverse backgrounds and perspectives when striving for an equitable and inclusive workplace. Beyond Distilling goes “above and beyond” in this regard by making sure at least 50% of its employees are people who have intellectual disabilities.

“We make working fun — everyone enjoys coming to work every day due to the positive and patient working environment. Our logo is of an open door due to our mission of employing people with intellectual disabilities and being a fully inclusive workforce,” says LaCorata.

Beyond Distilling is making important strides in the business side of things as well: “Equal pay is also very important, as there is a loophole in the federal Labor Law that allows employers to pay individuals with disabilities nothing or less than minimum wage,” LaCorata says. “We need to ensure paying equal wages is also part of the mission and be a part of closing that loophole.”

Jamie Stafford is the editorial associate at Beverage Dynamics. Reach her at jstafford@epgacceleration.com. Read her recent piece, 7 Alcohol Trends in 2022-23.The post Distilleries Making a Difference in DEI first appeared on Beverage Dynamics.
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Author: Jamie Stafford