ASW Distillery owners Jim Chasteen and Charlie Thompson have been sipping brown water for as long as they can remember — or at least as far back as their days together at the University of Georgia. So, it came as no surprise when the two chose to go into the whiskey-distilling business nearly six years ago. The story goes a little something like this.
Two Georgia boys meet at college and forge a lasting friendship over whiskey. The pair decide to distill their own in a state with some of the most restrictive liquor production laws in the country, which leads them to distill their first (unaged, ultra-filtered) whiskey in Charleston while building their brand and the capital needed to bring it back to Atlanta. They peddled their white whiskey from the trunks of their cars and festival tables for four years before finally securing the funds and the team needed to open their Armour Drive operation and begin distilling not one, but six new spirits within the city limits.
Today, Chasteen and Thompson own the largest craft distillery in Georgia with their newly minted 6,500-square-foot facility and tasting room. To put it into perspective, ASW is four times the size of an average craft distillery in both output and square footage.
"When we started, it was just Charlie and me out of the back of our cars"
"When we started, it was just Charlie and me out of the back of our cars," Chasteen recalls of ASW's beginnings. "We didn't have the incredible team we have now. We just wanted to make whiskey in Atlanta and that was it. We could never have imagined our crazy, whiskey-fueled idea would transform into all of this."
The ASW team, which Chasteen says "just happened," includes his wife Kelly, who helped design the beautiful 1,300-square-foot tasting room and investor's lounge, Chad Ralston, the distillery's marketing and social media guru and token millennial, head of sales Josh Anderson, whiskey expert Casey Teague, and master distiller Justin Manglitz, who brings with him 15 years of experience and a love of traditional distilling methods.
Manglitz was introduced to the college buddies by his older sister, who has been friends with Chasteen since high school in Athens. She insisted on the meeting when Chasteen told her he was looking for someone to help acquire and run ASW's stills in Atlanta.
"When Jim and Charlie talked to me about joining the team, I wasn't interested in being part of a small operation," Manglitz says. "But, as I got to know them, I knew this wasn't going to be a small-time whiskey distillery. This was going to be bigger than even they realized."
A distiller true to traditions, Manglitz (who got his first cell phone about six months ago) doesn't rely on the high-tech computerized systems many of the whiskey giants use to make their cuts. Instead, he bases his on intuition and experience, and determines the whiskey's "heart" for barreling through his highly sensitive palate.
"I knew we had the real deal in Justin when I took him to a distilling conference and he made all of these consultants on the floor look sophomoric in what they knew," Chasteen says. "He lives and breathes the science and traditions of spirits and distillation."
ASW's custom-built, dual Vendome copper pot system has transparent U tubes encased in glass, which allows Manglitz and those on facility tours to see the distillate flowing from the condenser. The system was built specifically for ASW and has since been replicated by two other distilleries in the country — one being Jim Beam, which only uses the still for experimentation.
The first run through the Armour Drive stills took place in late July — broken in by two new ASW spirits Chasteen and Thompson hope will become part of the Atlanta distilling lexicon. While the distillery is now fully operational, however, ASW doesn't anticipate moving its flagship American Spirit Whiskey from Charleston to Atlanta until some time next year.
"American Single Malt Rye" will be Atlanta's first single malt whiskey
The first, a hand-numbered and signed, limited release whiskey called "White Dog" made from 100 percent malted rye, is what ASW refers to as its "baby single malt". This spirit was specifically bottled in its infancy in order to showcase the flavors of a single malt before months of barrel aging. It accounts for approximately 5 percent of the first runs and is currently available in the tasting room. The other 95 percent is the "cask-matured White Dog," which is resting in new, charred American oak barrels and will become known as "American Single Malt Rye" and Atlanta's first single malt whiskey.
ASW hopes Atlanta's first single malt will help achieve one more historic milestone. The team is assisting the American Craft Spirits Association and a group of fellow craft distilleries from around the country in defining and lobbying the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau for what will become a new classification of whiskey: the American single malt.
While Chasteen and Thompson have a few more spirits in the pipeline for development, including a Georgia apple brandy and a curated bourbon called "Fiddler," for now the long-time friends are just happy to finally be open and making whiskey in their hometown.
"I wish we had chosen more moments to stop and think about how cool our first distillation was here last month, but you can't really plan it when you're deep in the distilling weeds," Chasteen says. "Even with this new facility and that first run, I guess we still think of ourselves as just a couple of knuckleheads hocking whiskey out of the back of our cars like a pair of Georgia bootleggers."
Tours: Thursday and Friday from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.
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