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Interview: Atlanta’s Distillery Of Modern Art Coming Of Age At 1 Year

Distilling in the Deep South, Georgia in this case, finds amiable weather for aging fine whiskey. The swing in temperatures brings out the best in the spirits.

But going beyond the stills and the barrels, a new breed of distillers are making this industry their own. That new breed includes the founder of Atlanta’s Distillery of Modern Art, Seth Watson, and Head Distiller Matt Greif.

What they have at DoMA is an amalgamation of distillery, gallery, event space, patio, and cocktail lounge.

And as they near their one-year anniversary, the purpose-driven concept now has a spirit portfolio of seven bottles, including Atlanta Vodka, Peach Flavored Vodka, Corn Whiskey, Rye Whiskey, Bourbon Whiskey, Nouveau Gin, and Amaro Peach.

Seth and Matt recently visited with The Whiskey Wash to discuss the industry, what it took to get where they are, and what people can expect from DoMA in the future.

Distillery of Modern Art
Atlanta’s Distillery of Modern Art, as they near one year, discusses with us the industry, what it took to get here, and what people can expect as DoMA moves forward. (image via Distillery of Modern Art)

The Whiskey Wash: Tell us about your background in the spirits industry; how did you find your way to whiskey and cocktails?

Seth Watson: “It stems from being in the hospitality business for 20 years. When I was in my early 20s, I realized I wasn’t much of a beer drinker and wanted to lean into spirits. Whiskey was my first love, and I spent the next 15 years trying any and every type of whiskey on the market. I found that craft distilleries were making much more interesting whiskey than most big brands. After selling my previous business in 2017, I wanted to learn the whiskey business to see if I could open a distillery. I embarked on a five-year education and training journey to understand the industry better. After years of research, countless lawyers, accountants, and consultants, I pulled the trigger on building a distillery.”

“In 2021 we started construction on the Distillery of Modern Art in Atlanta. We distill seven products. Two vodkas, a straight and peach flavored one. Both are distilled with French wheat, a beautiful take on London dry and western-style gin, aged and unaged 100% white corn whiskey, bourbon, rye, and a peach amaro.”

TWW: What is the Distillery of Modern Art, and how does it function in Atlanta, the South, and the spirits industry?

SW: “Distillery of Modern Art is one of only three distilleries in the metro Atlanta area. There is a tremendous amount of red tape for manufacturing distilled spirits in this state. Most laws are holdovers from prohibition, and any law changes really only benefit breweries. Regarding the South, as most of your readers are aware, the South is perfect weather for aging whiskey. While most people associate bourbon with the state of Kentucky, here in Georgia, we have similar temperature swings, and the environment is perfect for whiskey aging. We are helping change the idea that great bourbon can only come from Kentucky.”

TWW: How does one “experience” DoMA? 

SW: “Most distilleries in the country think about production first and the customer experience second. Coming from the hospitality world, I knew how people viewed our facility would be as important as the spirits themselves. We decided to focus heavily on a more modern take than what most facilities aim for. While we have a deep appreciation for 5th-generation distillers, 200-year-old recipes, and antiques, we found that most of these stories were made up for marketing purposes, and I firmly believe that just because something is old, it doesn’t make it good. We wanted to build an authentic brand with a legitimate story resonating with younger and older consumers. So we set out to create a facility encompassing everything we felt strongly about. The design of the interior is very modern and sleek and screams high-end.”

“First, why art is so intertwined with our brand is super easy to understand. We view spirits the same way people view art as a subjective matter. What may be the best thing someone has ever tasted or seen in a gallery may not be the same for someone else. Truthfully, I love that. You can’t be everything to everyone. We focus on creating spirits that have a mass appeal, but ultimately, we want to create the best in each category.”

“Continuing with the art, we commissioned seven artists to create a piece of abstract artwork that spoke to the particular spirit in the bottle they were assigned. They were tasked with creating a 40×40 piece of art on canvas. This art hangs in our main corridor. We then digitized that art and used the work on the interior of our three-sided labels. Next, we dedicated approximately 900 square feet for an art gallery in the building. This gallery only shows local artists, two complimentary artists at a time, and we rotate them every two months. We also do not take a commission from these artists. We strongly believe that to build a community, you have to help support others and not just have a financial relationship with them. The gallery is open daily to the public. Next, we have a 3000 square foot private events space. This space is rented out for nearly any type of event, from culinary events and weddings to corporate and social events. Lastly, we have a gorgeous cocktail lounge. What better way to introduce someone to our spirits than to present them in beautiful cocktails 10 feet away from our fully glass-enclosed still room.”

TWW: As the venture nears a year anniversary, where do bourbon and rye fit into future plans for DoMA?

SW: “Since our facility opened, we have been distilling and barreling both bourbon and rye. Our oldest aged whiskey in barrels is around seven months old. As far as how they fit into our future plans for DoMA, whiskey is our first love, and we plan to be barreling 250-350 barrels a year.”

TWW: How can other parts of the country and the whiskey industry draw inspiration from DoMA? 

SW: “As a new brand, we hope to be a catalyst for other parts of the industry to lean into supporting their farmers, their cooperages, their process pipers, etc. While sometimes it’s not sustainable to only use local vendors, as much as a business can, it should help their communities grow and be recognized.”

TWW: Where do you see the whiskey and cocktail industry in five or ten years? 

SW: “Whiskey and cocktail culture are very different things. We want to move the whiskey industry away from wild overpricing, subpar products, and exclusivity. The industry needs to be more affordable and approachable. As far as cocktails go, the hunt for simpler and cleaner cocktails will continue to grow. We hope folks move away from sugary premix modifiers and lean more into locally-sourced herbs, spices, and botanicals. As we say at DoMA, people will ‘seek more’ from their brands.”

TWW: Tell us how you got into the spirits industry.

Matt Greif: “It’s not one of those things that your high school guidance counselor tells you is an option, so I settled for film school. That was followed by 25 years of working in the film and television industry in some capacity. All that time, I had a passion for spirits and was an avid home brewer, but if you had asked me what I really wanted to do, I would have said that my passion was in the kitchen. That is until I decided to take home brewing to the next level and teach myself the basics of distilling. So yes, sometimes it takes 43 years of random jobs and hobbies to discover what you want to be when you grow up.”

TWW: What brought you to DoMA? Tell us about the concept from the distilling side.

MG: “Seth and I have a mutual friend in the industry who had been helping Seth in his search for a head distiller for quite some time, as I understand. I’d been distilling in the Chicago area for a few years and, after living in the Midwest all my life, was ready not just for a change in venue but a whole move to a different part of the country. So my first call was to our mutual friend, who immediately thought that we would work great together, and he put us in touch. You could say the rest is history, but our oldest whiskey won’t be a year old until June, so much of this history is yet to be written.”

“Not only did Seth and I decide that this was the right move for both of us, it became somewhat scary when you put a blind set of whiskey in front of us, and we both would rate them the same. Our palates were in sync as well. That, along with the notion that we could make great spirits in a way that was still accessible to everyone, opened the door for creativity.”

“Seth’s concept of bringing art and spirits together makes sense to me. I get to walk through an ever-changing gallery every day on my way to make spirits, so why not channel that creativity and color outside the lines a bit? Distilling has always been a blend of art and science; when you understand and can use the science properly, you can allow yourself the freedom to be artistic. Creating something with each of these spirits that is unique and colorful but still fits within its category is the challenge, and we are well on our way to making some great art that is pleasing to spirits lovers.”

TWW: Tell us about the whiskeys and other spirits in your portfolio.

MG: “Like most small distilleries, we started with what we could get into the market fastest, usually vodka. We did, however, put a lot of time into selecting the right base for the Atlanta Vodka. What went into the bottle had to be approachable to everyone and work great in all traditional vodka cocktails. To stick with the art theme, our vodka needed to be the canvas home and professional mixologists could paint on. With that, we succeeded.”

“Now being in Georgia, the next stop on the vodka express had to be, without any doubt, a peach-flavored version. But unlike most flavored vodkas that hit the shelf at 30 or 35 percent ABV, we kept this at 40%. You still know you’re drinking spirits at that ABV, and it’s a great mixer in many drinks.”

“Bourbon, Rye, and Corn whiskey has been flowing into barrels since the day they let us turn on the stills. My approach to all of these was to start with the very best ingredients. We tried six different corn varieties, eight strains of rye, and countless barley malts before settling in on our current mash bills. What we’ve sampled so far has us very excited for the future. I’m developing more relationships with farmers in the state that want to work with us, and these will become whiskeys that are not just distilled in Georgia, but entirely locally grown.”

“My goal with all our whiskeys is that they are spirits that showcase their origins as genuine agricultural products. Farmers put so much into growing these grains that it would be a shame not to let those flavors shine through in the whiskey. Fermentation, distillation, and barrel aging all play tremendous roles in bringing all these flavors together, and I have no doubt that these three whiskeys are on a path to becoming classics.”

TWW: How important are the distillery tours to the DoMA, and how do they work?

MG: “Tours are one of the most important aspects of starting a distillery, and the way the Distillery of Modern Art was designed took that into consideration from very early in the planning process. Seth’s vision of being able to see the process and the equipment as functional art shines through from the moment you walk in the front door. For customers to see what is happening behind the scenes while enjoying a cocktail and then get up close and personal with the people making those spirits is really special.”

“Tours also allow us to get to know our customers on a personal level and to explain to them our vision for the things we create. The smells and sounds of a working distillery are eye-opening for some. In my experience, people love to learn, so being able to feed spirits lovers new information is wonderful, but even better is our tours’ ability to educate those new to enjoying spirits and help them along on this journey that has given us so much happiness.”

TWW: What new or innovative things are around the corner for the DoMA?

MG: “I’m always looking for ways to be better or to improve. Innovation is a daily part of life here, and you’ll never hear anyone say something is ‘good enough.’ As for new spirits, there are always things that we want to make and experiment with. For example, we are already putting corn whiskey into barrels previously used for different whiskeys, wines, and beers. The beauty of that category is that we can do that without using new charred oak first, so the flavor possibilities are endless. I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw an American Single Malt on the horizon.”

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Gary Carter

Gary Carter has been at the helm of metro newspapers, magazines, and television news programs as well as a radio host and marketing manager. He is a writer/editor/photographer/designer by trade, with more than 30 years experience in the publishing and marketing field. Gary enjoys working to build something great, whether that be a novel project, a start-up, an organization, a fresh-face to the journalistic world, or even something as simple as a short story. A native Texan and a Pacific Northwest convert, he is a whiskey enthusiast who cut his teeth on it ... literally!

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