Every start-up whiskey maker strives to back their brand with a memorable story that helps it rise above the craft-spirits deluge of recent years. For Old Dominick Distillery in Memphis, the challenge is picking which storyline to lead with.
Right off the bat, there’s the rebirth of a historic whiskey label, first introduced on ceramic jugs in 1866 by Italian immigrant Domenico Canale as part of a fledgling grocery distribution business that would feed Mid-Southerners for generations. In 2013, the discovery of a dusty, unopened bottle inspired Domenico’s great great grandsons, Chris and Alex Canale, to build a distillery and resurrect Old Dominick.
Then there’s the fact that when Old Dominick Straight Tennessee Whiskey was released last November, it became the first whiskey distilled, aged, and bottled in Memphis since Prohibition. (Well, legally at least.) That’s just the sort of knowledge you want to pass along while pouring a taste for a fellow whiskey nerd.
But perhaps the most compelling angle concerns the person who crafted that milestone whiskey, Alex Castle, the first known female master distiller in Tennessee history, as her journey seems both remarkable and somehow inevitable.
Growing up in Kentucky, Castle was set on becoming a marine biologist until a high school science class thoroughly squashed that desire. “But I excelled at chemistry and math,” Castle recalls. “One of the things my mom told me I could do with that was be a brewmaster, and I fell in love with the idea.”
Studies in chemical engineering at the University of Kentucky led to an internship with an animal-nutrition company that had ambitions to start a distillery but, lo and behold, no one to operate the pot stills just delivered from Scotland. “I got a crash course and started running those stills,” Castle says. “I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole time, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
After graduation, she landed at industry giant Wild Turkey as a production supervisor and thought she’d stay there forever. “Then one day I got a random message on LinkedIn asking if I knew anyone who might be interested in going to Memphis to start a distillery,” she says. “Two months later I moved to Memphis.”
Given free rein by the Canale brothers to design a production space exactly as she saw fit, Castle got busy blending bourbons obtained from other distillers into the first bottles to bear the Old Dominick label in a century. Meanwhile, all involved had to wait for the first juice actually distilled on site to mature. And wait…and wait.
“I told the owners I wouldn’t touch a barrel before it turned four years old,” says Castle, who ended up blending five- and six-year-old barrels for the initial release of Tennessee Straight Whiskey. “The biggest question was how the Memphis climate would affect the process—there’s crazy heat here compared to Kentucky. In the end, the long wait was well worth it.”
Contrary to popular belief, there exists no law, Kentucky or otherwise, that would prevent this whiskey from being called bourbon if Old Dominick so desired. Tennessee law, on the other hand, dictates that anything labeled Tennessee Whiskey must be filtered through charcoal (aka the Lincoln County Process). Fortunately for Castle’s preferences, that law has plenty of bend.
“Each distillery can interpret the fine points of the filtering process,” she says. “Some big Tennessee distilleries filter for like an entire day, while I’m at the opposite extreme of filtering through a tiny canister of charcoal for ten or fifteen seconds.”
The result of Castle’s craft, and nature’s nudge, imparts the corn sweetness and charred-oak smoke of classic Tennessee whiskeys, with notes of caramel, vanilla, and cinnamon candy. “Just as interesting,” Castle says, “we’re going into barrels at 110 proof and coming out at 120 proof. In getting rid of so much water, we’re getting a dense whiskey with lots of body, even when we proof down to 85.”
At the moment, Old Dominick Tennessee Straight Whiskey is sold only in Memphis, but by spring the rest of the state, plus Arkansas and Missouri, will get a taste of Castle’s history-making efforts. “I honestly had no idea when I took this job that I would be able to say I’m Tennessee’s first female master distiller, and it’s still something that’s catching me off guard when mentioned,” she says. “I’m just honored to be a master distiller and that I get to call Tennessee my home.”