Friday, October 30, 2020 10 mins read
Friday, October 30, 2020 10 mins read
How a chemical engineer from Kentucky became the first female head distiller in Tennessee at this Memphis distillery
She’s got a bachelors of science degree in chemical engineering. And she’s worked as a distillery production supervisor for one of the largest names in the big whiskey game.
But Alex Castle’s heart has always belonged to the craft spirits community.
When she finally decided to follow that passion, it led the native Kentuckian straight to a Memphis distillery where she’s proudly served for the last four years as master distiller and senior vice president of Old Dominick Distillery.
“I fell in love with the idea of the distilled spirits industry when I was still in high school,” Alex tells us.
“And to this day, I still don’t honestly know what about the idea was so intriguing to me. But over time, I fell in love with the industry.”
“The creativity and resourcefulness involved, the comradery amongst the distillers, the interactions between distillers and consumers,” Alex continues.
“There is just so much to love about this industry.”
It’s that genuine appreciation for the artistry behind small-batch distilling that made Alex such a perfect fit for an independent, Tennessee distillery like Old Dominick.
“I think we have a unique view on spirits,” she explains. “Wanting to honor history and tradition but also wanting to push the envelope and be innovative.”
Old Dominick Distillery and an old fashioned recipe
The story of Old Dominick Distillery goes back 1859, when 16 year old Domenico Canale first arrived in the United States from his home in Italy.
He settled in Memphis and went to work running a modest fruit cart alongside his uncle.
Before long, the hard working immigrant established his own food wholesale business, D. Canale & Co.
Among its very first offerings was a whiskey sold in ceramic jars and bottles that Canale called, Old Dominick whiskey.
A Memphis distillery with roots that date back to 1866 and the food wholesaler D. Canale & Co.
The success of his original Old Dominick whiskey inspired Canale to get creative. And in 1880, he developed the “Dominick Toddy”, a bourbon-based cordial with a fruity, refreshing overtone.
It was a huge success for the young entrepreneur and burgeoning craft distiller.
But when prohibition became law in 1920, the production and sale of spirits ceased at D. Canale & Co.
Flash forward to 2013.
Whether destined by fate or just discovered by dumb luck, Chris and Alex Canale, the great-great-grandsons of Domenico Canale stumbled across an unopened bottle of Old Dominick Toddy that dated back to 1880.
Alex picks up the story from there, “When his great-great-grandsons decided to
bring the brand back to life, they wanted to honor him and the company’s history by keeping the name.”
So the Canale brothers established Old Dominick Distillery in 2013.
They worked hard for three years and began production in 2016, opening the doors of their Memphis distillery to the public in 2017 where Alex Castle entered the picture and became the first female Head Distiller in Tennessee history.
Old Dominick Distillery has been churning out award-winning craft spirits ever since; handmade, one small batch at a time.
The Old Dominick Distillery lineup
Toasted vanilla, browned butter, sweet corn and stone fruit. These are just some of the flavor notes that lead you through a bottle of Old Dominick Distillery’s Huling Station Bourbon.
From its cherry pipe tobacco opening, to the lingering, salted caramel finish, Huling Station Bourbon is a medium-bodied corn, rye and malted barley bourbon that is a true celebration of Canale family history.
The Old Dominick Memphis Toddy is the recipe that started it all.
Made the same way today as it was back in 1880, it uses bourbon, cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon and citrus peel to deliver a well balanced craft spirit that blends exotic spice and rich honey with tart citrus notes.
Huling Station Bourbon and other craft spirits from Old Dominick Distillery.
Old Dominick Memphis Vodka is an award-winner that’s subtly sweet and perfectly smooth. It’s full bodied, nicely rounded and packs just the right dash of heat.
When Old Dominick Distillery takes their vodka and infuses it with honeybells, which are a citrus-rich tangerine/grapefruit hybrid, we get their Honeybell Citrus Vodka, a refreshing flavored craft spirit that delivers crisp, botanical aromas and bright flavors that are sweet, fruity and unforgettable.
According to Alex, the honeybell is actually the most unique ingredient used at Old Dominick Distillery.
She says, “It’s a very southern fruit but very few people know what it is or
have ever had one. It makes for a very nice citrus vodka that balances the tartness of a grapefruit and the sweetness of a tangerine.”
But there’s one craft spirit from Old Dominick that holds a special place in Alex’s heart.
“While the others were already being developed and discussed when I joined the team,” Alex explains, “this was my product from start to finish.”
Alex has complete control over the development of Old Dominick Gin. And while she’s incredibly proud of the complexities she’s crafted, Alex is proud to add that she was heavily involved with the packaging design too.
What it means to be an independent Memphis distillery
“Being independent, and typically smaller, usually means you don’t have the buying power of the larger, more corporate players,” Alex points out.
“So we aren’t getting big price breaks on raw material. So we are paying more for the same material as the big guys, which then makes it harder to be price competitive on the shelf.”
“And then there’s the challenge of getting people’s attention.” she continues.
“We don’t have the marketing teams and budgets of the big boys, so you have to get very creative when it comes to advertising.
But Alex also recognizes where being independent gives them a distinct advantage over “the big guys”.
Like when it comes to getting creative with the distilling process itself.
A Tennessee distillery that has fun taking the art of making craft spirits seriously.
“We have two different distillation systems, which enables us to produce both whiskey at a lower proof, and vodkas and gins at a higher proof. And we kind of bridge those two systems by using our Tennessee Whiskey to make our Memphis Vodka.”
Making sure things are done the right way is a top priority for Alex and the team at Old Dominick Distillery.
She says, “Overall, I’m very much a traditionalist when it comes to distillation and we keep things rather simple, which might be due to my engineering background or the fact that I was trained in Bourbon Country, which is very tradition-oriented.”
“Independent distilleries can offer creativity and authenticity that is rare in larger companies; oftentimes, our distilleries are our whole lives, so we pour a lot of ourselves into our products and our distilleries.”
Alex adds, “Getting Old Dominick off the ground and running has been more than a full-time job for the last four years, and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon.”
A Memphis distillery that’s a staple in the local community
Old Dominick Distillery is Memphis to the bone.
According to Alex, “Memphis has some of the best water in the world, thanks to the Sand Aquifer, and water plays a key role in making spirits.”
The Memphis Sand Aquifer is a massive underground reservoir where water lies in sand between layers of clay. The sand acts as a natural filter, slowly removing many of the water’s impurities.
Alex goes on, “Also, I like to think that the grit that defines the city carries over into our spirits and how we do things.
Remember, Old Dominick Distillery and the Canale family have Memphis roots that go back for generations and generations.
Alex reminds us, “Our parent company was founded in Memphis over 150 years ago, so I’m not sure we would even be here if it weren’t for the city.”
At Old Dominick Distillery, every sip is a taste of Memphis distillery history.
“But also, Memphians are very proud of all things Memphis and they band together to support their own; we’re very fortunate to call Memphis our hometown.”
In her own words, the most rewarding part of being head distiller at Old Dominick Distillery is, “Being able to do what I love, for a living, and being able to share that with people.”
She doesn’t stop there.
“I want Old Dominick to be known for great spirits, both expected and unexpected spirits. And for being a true Memphis brand and landmark.”
“I want people to remember us for our passion, our determination and our love for what we do.”
Congratulations, Alex. You’ve done “Bluff City” proud. The good people of Memphis say thank you.