Jim Chasteen still recalls his first lesson as a risk management student in the Terry College of Business.
“The first thing they teach you on day one is to avoid dogs, trampolines, and booze,” says Chasteen BBA ’98.
Chasteen and his business partner Charlie Thompson AB ’99, MBA ’03, JD ’03 are recalling the genesis of their venture, ASW Distillery. They’ve just finished a tasting session of rye whiskeys—an enviable but necessary part of their job—in one of the three production facilities of their award-winning spirits company.
Despite the warnings from his business class, Chasteen has been in the booze business for over a decade. He points out that he also has two dogs at home. But at least he’s steered clear of trampolines.
In just a few years, ASW has become one of the leading craft distilleries in Georgia and is recognized for producing some of the finest craft spirits in the nation, including Fiddler Bourbon, Resurgens Rye, Duality Double Malt, and Winterville Gin.
The distillery is a six-time winner of double-gold in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the Oscars of the spirits world. ASW has been the most awarded craft distillery at that competition since 2018, and in 2020, ASW entered a product that won best craft whiskey in the entire match.
But it wasn’t too long ago that this whole operation was a pipe dream of two former college roommates.
Chasteen and Thompson met as fraternity brothers at the University of Georgia in the late ’90s. After graduation, they stayed in touch, eventually bonding over their affinity for sipping fine whiskeys.
“We both found rye,” says Thompson, almost as if they’d found religion.
A close cousin to bourbon, rye whiskey is an American spirit distilled from mostly rye grain and aged in a charred barrel.
“We started kicking around this idea: Why don’t we make our own whiskey?” Thompson recalls. “Why don’t we start a whiskey company?”
As a risk management instructor once predicted, the idea had a few hiccups.
“We had absolutely zero relevant background,” says Thompson, who had worked at a law firm and then in real estate. Home distilling is prohibited without a license, so it’s not easy to become an expert.
Another problem: Decent whiskey takes years to age–typically, bourbon is aged at least four years before being sold, and often even longer. That time waiting around for their whiskey to age can mean a period of zero revenue.
During that initial aging process, many new spirit companies go to existing distillers to select a ready-made whiskey and bottle it with their own labels. But Chasteen and Thompson didn’t want to sell someone else’s whiskey.
Instead, they found a distillery in Charleston, South Carolina, which helped them develop a recipe for a lightly aged whiskey (in the barrel “more than six minutes and less than six days,” said Thompson). Chasteen says it was like a vodka with a slightly sweet bourbon flavor. They called it American Spirit Whiskey.
The Next Level
After years of nights and weekends on the passion project, Chasteen left his job to commit full-time to ASW as its CEO in 2015. That same year, they connected with two other Georgia Bulldogs who would become crucial to the business.
Justin Manglitz BBA ’04 earned a degree from Terry College to help fulfill his dream of opening a distillery. Over the years, Manglitz had developed his craft on his way to arguably becoming one of the nation’s best craft distillers.
As they sought to grow ASW, the co-founders approached Manglitz to become a consultant, but he had something else in mind.
Manglitz wanted in on the business. He offered Chasteen and Thompson a sample of a single malt whiskey he’d developed. Thompson and Chasteen offered him the role of master distiller, a decision that has been validated by ASW’s success in San Francisco.
Around that time, they also found another Bulldog, Chad Ralston BBA ’08. Ralston had created a management aggregation system to help local craft breweries better target their best consumer base. Ralston joined ASW as its marketing officer.
A fifth Georgia graduate, Chasteen’s wife Kelly BSEd ’00, became a partner in her own right and runs tasting rooms and private events.
Five of ASW’s six partners are Georgia Bulldogs, and their connection to UGA remains strong. Thompson serves on the board of the UGA School of Law, and Jim and Kelly Chasteen have worked with the Student Entrepreneurship Program.
With a team in place and a successful capital-raising effort, ASW built its first distillery in Atlanta’s Armour Yards, near SweetWater Brewing. They’ve since opened a location in the West End on the Beltline, and in 2021 they opened a site at The Battery, right outside the Atlanta Braves’ Truist Park.
Chasteen and Thompson are coy about what could be next for ASW but say they’re looking for the opportunity to expand and give their brand staying power. That is, as long as they can keep the core values of ASW in place.
Over the years, the team has carefully cultivated a culture of responsibility and respectability. Their tasting rooms aren’t designed as bars but as spaces to savor and learn new things.
That tasting room outside the Braves’ ballpark typically closes before night games let out. Even if they miss out on some revenue, the co-founders don’t want ASW to be a place where fans go for one last drink.
Thompson says, “Jim and I both had grandmothers who were teetotalers, who didn’t drink at all. We wanted to build a whiskey company that our teetotaling grandmothers would be proud of.”