There’s an old saying in the South that while in Atlanta they ask you what you do and in Macon they ask you what church you go to, in Savannah? They ask you what you want to drink. And no one is answering that question better than Ghost Coast Distillery.
Ghost Coast Distillery embraces Savannah’s spirited and storied history – and in their direct words, a culture of “indulgence, light-hearted mischief, and jubilation. We honored the Spirit of Savannah by opening Ghost Coast Distillery, Savannah’s first distillery since just before prohibition.” There’s not a better way to describe the city’s long-term love of a good cocktail. While Ghost Coast is still brand new, General Manager Chris Sywassink and partner/ Operations Manager, Rob Ingersoll had been at work on the distillery for almost four years before giving birth to it over on Indian Street, where the vodka and whiskey flow forth.
We sat down with Sywassink to talk more on what Ghost Coast’s success in Savannah means and where you go forward when you’ve hit the mark so early in the game.
The Creative Coast: Talk to us about the genesis story of Ghost Coast Distillery.
Chris Sywassink: Ghost Coast was thought up by myself and a college buddy about four and a half years ago. We decided we wanted to take a shot at a company, a business that we could mold in a way that we wanted to. We came up with the concept late one night after probably too many whiskey drinks, and then started writing a business plan on the back of a bar napkin. We wanted to make something that was made locally, that we really could get people around, and supported, that were proud of what we were doing.
Savannah was our home at that point in time. I’ve been here for over 12 years, and my buddy had been here for over three. We kind of just fell in love with Savannah and saw a niche that wasn’t being filled, and thought this is a great place to do it, and why not give it a shot while we’re young enough to do it, and put the energy and effort that would be needed to make something like this come about.
So we sat down and white boarded everything we wanted to do, and how we were going to do it. We quickly realized there were aspects that we had to fill in the blanks, because we didn’t either have the expertise or the knowledge to make it work successfully. We had never distilled spirits before in our lives. We had consumed quite a bit of them over our lives, but we figured if we’re going to do it, and do it right, we need to go learn how to do it. We did some internet searches and found schools that offered the ability to learn how to distill. We signed up and went to school.
Fast forward, we got our degrees on how to make booze, and started coming up with ideas. What was nice is the school we went to had industry experts, consultants that were readily available for Q & A, and “What do you do this, and what do you do that?” We quickly partnered with some guys that had been in the industry 30, 40, 50 years, and they helped shepherd us through the process of developing and building a distillery. Along the way, we were able to develop relationships within the industry, and find people that were either curious about what we were doing, wanted to come to Savannah and be a part of it, as well as finding local folks here in Savannah that were intrigued by what we were doing, and wanted to be a part of it.
CC: So everyone talks about that “leap of faith” moment, right? I was grinding at my job, or doing this. For y’all, at some point you had to make that leap into … What was that for y’all? What was your thing that pushed you finally first over?
CS: We manufacture alcohol. My co-founder was a manufacturing guy, and spent his whole entire career, over 20 years manufacturing, so he understood the concept and that side of it, but the practicality side he had not had that experience yet. Through several aspects of it, local push for goods were starting to really pick up speed. We knew we wanted to make something that was from America, that was American-made, that we could be proud of, and rekindle that aspect of making something here, instead of getting something from somewhere else. We’re whiskey and bourbon fans. That’s kind of a foundation of Ghost Coast. We figured if we put those two together, what’s more American than whiskey and bourbon? Nothing. So it was like, “Okay, that’s an easy one.” He, as well as myself, we had reached a point in our careers where we were working for other people. We didn’t really have that ability to really drive what we wanted to do. It was always working for somebody else.
So we looked at it from a practical side, and we had enough experience or energy to say, “We’re gonna do it. Let’s jump off and do it on our own,” even though we both had perfectly good paying jobs, and we were kinda crazy in a way, because of what it takes to put this kind of thing together.
But we had belief in ourselves, and belief in each other, that we could go sell something was one, sustainable, but also one that could be profitable, that we could share with all our team members, and give good jobs, health care, and security for their families, and then also develop great drinks, great juice that people can be proud of. And we can be proud of.
One of our things that we do is that nothing goes into a bottle until we know we can’t make it any better. If it’s not good enough, then we won’t put it in a bottle, and we’ll keep trying until we get there. It’s kinda what we live by, whether it’s service from the bar, service from our tour, service from our retail, production service, that’s kind of the key essential of what we’re doing. But for that … we were just ready to take that leap of faith, and do something on our own, and have ownership and control of what we want to put out there, to put our names on.
CC: Very cool. You touched on it a little bit, how y’all came to be, but it seems you could take this model and go to Austin or Portland, or whatever sexy urban enclave that offers … whatever, so then why Savannah?
CS: For starters, Savannah embodies hostess, it embodies libation, it embodies having a good time. The culture here around food and alcohol and excess and fun, and that just seems like a right thing. Plus, I won’t kid to anybody, the tourism numbers that we see through this city, is a big asset, too, and the notion that we legitimately could be the first to plant our flag in downtown Savannah was a huge deciding factor, too.
When we started this project, the laws in the state of Georgia were not conducive to a responsible financial model for a place like this. We had been told several times by folks in government, that you should do it in South Carolina, because the laws are never going to change. I kinda took that as saying, well I don’t like being told no, and I’ll just go change the laws, and went and lobbied in Atlanta, and we built up grassroots fundamental change. And it started developing over three years. We just had a huge monumental law change in the state of Georgia, that hadn’t changed since 1934. That was another precursor of why Savannah. It just all made sense.
CC: Very cool. So for y’all, what’s next? You could easily go in any direction – you make it here, you brand it here, you sell it here, you do tours. What does the next five or ten years look like?
CS: A lot of it is creativity. This is kind of our test kitchen right here. It allows us to push the envelope on what alcohols are out there, and what changing categories, and coming up with new flavors, new tastes, new cocktails. It’s all rolled into one. We don’t want to be limited, so we are constantly thinking outside the box. What can we change? What can be different? What can be our new spin? It’s that kind of idealism here. It’s kind of whatever we jump on, it starts to build momentum, and we can roll with it.
We’ve got fundamental flavors and variants that we put out in the marketplace right now, but that doesn’t say that we can’t increase those. We’ve got a great distributor partner that fosters our creativity and allows us to bring him ideas every day if we want to. It’s really just … we get through our first year. We’ve had so many changes in our business model already. It’s been crazy. Also, we’ve thrived on it, because it constantly keeps us, “What’s next? What’s changed? What’s new?” We’re going with variants, different whiskey flavors, our bourbon comes out in 2020, different vodka flavors. We’ve got three rums that we just finished up making this summer, aging, plus some that’s ready to bottle now that will start coming out. We’ve got two gins.
Twelve weeks before September 1st, we knew the law was changing. We were like, well, if we’re gonna utilize the law to the fullest degree, then for our cocktail room, we’ve gotta make everything that’s got any alcohol in it, because who wants to take shots, and who wants to have regular tall drinks? You can get that anywhere, but what we looked at is let’s make 22 different crazy variants in cordials and liquors, that can really distill a taste. A true cocktail room that is different than anywhere else, because all of our ingredients that you get here, you can’t get anywhere else.
You can get our vodkas, you can get our whiskeys, but that’s it. Everything else, our gins, our rums, our … We’ve got a Green Chartreuse. That’s our take on it. We call it the Chartreusian Bitter. It’s made from a monastery red tequila, that’s over 102 years old that hasn’t been made. It is awesome, and we make our own Brunette, our spin on it. And we can’t get it anywhere else, so it’s this unique bar, that … Like I’m having a Boulevardier. You can get a Boulevardier anywhere in town, and they’re all good. Ours is different, because all the ingredients are only made here, and so that pushes the envelope on creativity for all of us here, and that’s what makes it fun.
To learn more about Ghost Coast Distillery, visit: https://ghostcoastdistillery.com