Tucked away down a winding street in Chamblee, the Distillery of Modern Art (DOMA) offers a refreshing new way to see artwork and engage with local artists. The unique concept combines a craft distillery with an art gallery and event space.

I recently met with owner Seth Watson who showed me around, shared all the ins and outs of distilling, and highlighted the number of artists whose works are on display there. 

DOMA opened its doors on June 1 after years of careful planning, research, and fundraising. But before all that, it was a dream. 

Originally from New York, Watson’s love for spirits traces back to his college days in Gainesville, Florida when he would find himself at campus bars, drinking draught beer and generally not enjoying the experience. He wanted something else, which led to his first taste of whiskey. In that moment he was inspired. “I just wanted to try everything. I spent the next ten years or so trying every kind of spirit I could get my hands on.”

Seth Watson in the still room. Photographs by Isadora Pennington.

For 20 years Watson channeled his passion into design and production for private events that ranged from a couple hundred to thousands of people. Though it was a successful role for Watson, he longed to pursue something that was uniquely his. 

And so, after officially resigning from his job, Watson dove in head first. He spent years traveling across the country and visiting as many craft distilleries as he could. As he chatted with the owners he would ask questions, hoping to learn more about the industry. He wanted to know what worked and what didn’t, and he didn’t understand why there weren’t more craft distilleries.

In his research he unearthed the true cost of launching a distillery and the legal requirements, not to mention the highly involved process of making and selling good quality spirits. From the law to the label, Watson was all in on making sure everything about DOMA would be perfect. 

That’s just kind of who Seth Watson is. I doubt he could do anything halfway. 

The space, which was once just a warehouse, has been extensively transformed into a gathering space that is both sleek and approachable. Watson shared that the total build out cost was around $3 million, while the equipment was another $1.5 million on top of that. “I knew exactly what I wanted to build and found the right people to help me do it,” said Watson.

The gallery is situated towards the front of the building with a door that opens to the patio. Visitors heading to the entrance catch glimpses of art and color through the glass, enticing them to enter. Just a few feet inside is a floor-to-ceiling installation of liquor bottles that have been filled with varying levels of colored liquid. It’s a relatively simple concept with a big impact. Beyond the wall is the Watson Gallery.

At one end of the space a wide window near the ceiling reveals a mirror reflecting the workstation on the other side of the wall. That area is the Distillery’s lab, where the hands of Head Distiller Matt Greif can sometimes be seen experimenting with ingredients and processes to develop new varieties of their offerings. It’s an immersive experience that reminds you that you are still in a working distillery, and the drink in your hand is a product of that. 

That’s not the only secret spot in DOMA. From the gallery, a hidden door leads to the production room where spirits are bottled, labeled, and packaged. The machine that handles this process is massive, snaking around the width of the entire space. Watson led me to the fermenter and showed the giant bags of grain that they receive from local farms. 

Perhaps the most impressive, and rightfully so, is the monumental still room. Surrounded by huge glass windows and even protruding up through the roof, DOMA’s massive stills positively gleam in the sunlight. The stills are the heart of the Distillery of Modern Art. It is in this space, surrounded by glass and steel, that the mash of raw grains is finally transformed into fine spirits. 

Just outside, a hallway leads to the event space and back door. The walls, lined with abstract paintings, hold special significance to Watson. As someone who has always loved art, particularly abstracts, he wanted to find a way to incorporate artwork into DOMA on a more permanent basis in addition to the revolving gallery shows. And so he curated a collection of original pieces that were inspired by DOMA’s seven signature spirits: Rye Whiskey, Corn Whiskey, Bourbon Whiskey, Atlanta Vodka, Peach Flavored Vodka, Nouveau Gin, and Amaro Peach. You’ll also spy a few murals peppered throughout the space, with plans to continue adding more down the line. 

“Intertwining art with this building to create an event space, an atmosphere, a vibe and to create our spirits, it was all built to intertwine art and create an experience.” said Watson.

The bar and tasting room at the Distillery of Modern Art is both comfortable and a little swanky. Modern lighting and upscale furniture elevate the experience to something that’s appropriate for date nights, corporate events, girls’ night out, and even drinks with your grandparents. Craft cocktails and spirits, presented in a sophisticated manner, have a broad appeal that entice new and established drinkers alike. 

Currently on display in the Watson Gallery is a joint exhibition featuring works by Guatemalan artist Armando Chacon and Georgia State University Professor Craig Dongoski. They have the next two years allotted for artists to showcase there, and it has been wildly successful, particularly once Watson announced that DOMA would take no commission. Meanwhile, one of the larger spaces in the building is the 2,800 square foot event space which hosts events ranging from weddings to performance art and comedy shows. 

“You want to feel safe, and you want to feel like you’re getting an experience. Otherwise why come out?” posed Watson as we sat at the bar, sipping some incredible cocktails. He leaned back in his chair and scanned the room, gesturing to the bartenders mixing drinks and the tours meandering through the still room. 

“The idea of being taken care of – hospitality as an industry is the idea that someone is taking care of you – that’s something that is deeply important to us here.”

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.