Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Emily Fraizer
In January 2016, Old Dominick Distillery started production on what would be the first whiskey produced in Memphis since at least prohibition, and possibly ever. The following month, the raw spirit was put to rest in barrels. For the past three years, the whiskey has been carefully aging in the distillery’s warehouse.
Old Dominick has a long history in Memphis, though few alive would remember it. The whiskey that is currently aging in Old Dominick's Front Street warehouse uses the same mash recipe recovered from recipes that predate prohibition. Although the product wasn’t actually ever distilled in Memphis, it became a popular whiskey with ties to our city.
The original Old Dominick was made by the legendary Domenico Canale, an Italian immigrant who moved to Memphis in the late 1800s and became one of the leading businessmen of the city. The Canale name still holds high in Memphis today, as many of Domenico’s descendants have gone on to start their own reputable businesses and take political offices over the past century.
However, the woman behind the whiskey is Alex Castle. A Kentucky transplant turned Memphian, Castle has worked for several notable distilleries since entering the business 12 years ago, including the likes of Wild Turkey. Upon accepting the job as master distiller in 2015, she became the first woman to ever hold the title in the state of Tennessee. To put into perspective how rare and overdue this accomplishment was, Kentucky—the whiskey capital of the world—had just hired its first female master distiller only a few months prior.
Since barreling the initial batch of now two-year-old whiskey at Old Dominick, Castle has made a wide array of spirits. The products include vodka, honeybell-infused vodka, flavored whiskey known as “Memphis Toddy,” and several varieties of gin.
Castle’s love for distilling comes from her childhood fascination with math and science. That passion would lead the former honor student, who had never had a drink, to run one of the largest distilleries in Tennessee.
“I was in high school when I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college. I was talking to my mom and had just recently discovered my love for chemistry, physics and calculus, all of those maths and sciences. She suggested chemical engineering as a degree in college. I said, ‘OK, that adds up, but what would I do with that?’ She said, ‘You can be a brewmaster and make beer or you be a master distiller and make whiskey,’” reminisces Castle. “I’m sure she said some other things, but I didn't hear them because I loved the first two so much. I thought they sounded amazing and of course I was 15 or 16-years-old, so how was I supposed to know? But, that was the path I went on.”
Unlike many teenagers (or at least this writer), Castle wasn’t a drinker. She questions, in hindsight, why it ever even appealed to her.
“I really wasn’t one of the kids who drank in high school, so why brewing or distilling sounded appealing to me at all, I have no clue,” she laughs. “Neither of my parents really even drank. We did a tour of Makers Mark when I was about five-years-old, and that was really the only exposure I had to bourbon. So, I have no clue what really made me want to do this.”
Regardless of why, Castle continued down her path. While in college, Castle went on to work for a small Lexington, Kentucky, brewery — Lexington Brewing. While she was working there, the brewery decided to add a small distillery. They needed someone to run it and Castle took the job. The distillery would end up becoming Town Branch Bourbon.
“While working there I realized I wanted to go into whiskey and not beer. I shifted my focus into discovering different whiskeys. There was one time I wanted to explore the differences between all the big brands: Makers, Glenfiddich, Buffalo Trace, etc.,” explains Castle. “I ended up buying a bunch of airplane bottles because I couldn't afford to buy fifths (750 milliliters) of all of them. I ended up having this little flight set up in my apartment.”
Castle eventually left Town Branch Bourbon to work for whiskey giant Wild Turkey. There she earned the title of senior distillery production supervisor.
“I thought that was my dream job, that I had achieved what I set out to do. It was an amazing experience and I loved every minute of it,” Castle says. “Honestly, I was not looking to leave when this opportunity came up. But I realized, when I was presented with this opportunity to help with a new distillery, that it wasn’t my dream job anymore.”
While Castle was working for Wild Turkey, she was contacted by a consultant for the then-theoretical Old Dominick through the social networking site LinkedIn. They asked if she could recommend anybody who wanted to move to Memphis to run a new distillery. She applied, came down to Memphis for the first time, and accepted the job. By fall 2015 Castle had become a Memphian.
She explains the day-to-day operations don’t necessarily change from distillery to distillery, presuming you have the same role. Taking on the position of master distiller however, definitely has changed her daily routines.
“As long as you’re in similar roles, the day-to-day are very, very similar between distilleries. You’re milling grain, you’re mashing, you’re distilling, you’re filling barrels, you’re blending product, you’re bottling, it’s very much the same. However, my days are very different now. I'm in the lab, going to guild meetings, doing research and development. There is no day-to-day now,” Castle laughs. “I just do whatever needs to be done.”
Although it is becoming more common for women to be more involved on the production side of the spirits industry, it is still rare. Castle says the public perceives the industry as being very masculine, but it hasn’t stopped her from excelling in the field.
“Being a woman in this industry is definitely a rare thing,” explains Castle. “It's becoming more common place and people are becoming less surprised by it. When I was hired in 2015, I was the first female master distiller in Tennessee. Kentucky had just gotten their first female master distiller a couple months before, which gives you kind of an idea that it just doesn’t happen very often in the industry. I think the perception is that distilling is absolutely a boy’s game. The industry is mostly men. When you think of your typical whiskey drinker, it's generally a man. Look at the advertising, who are you advertising to? Men. But my experience being in the industry, as far as working and dealing with other people in the industry, has been completely welcoming to myself and other women I’ve encountered. I haven't had any experience within the industry with sexists.”
Even though her colleagues and peers have been more than welcoming to women, it's more often the consumers, she says, who have to be convinced.
“Consumers on the other hand can be a little bit different. You get the know-it-alls who think just because you're a woman they’ll know more than you. That’s when you just spew out facts and put them in their place,” she laughs. “You just drop the mic and you're good to go.”
Since relocating to Memphis, Castle has become an avid supporter of the city. She notes Memphians have pride for their neighborhoods and city, and that no matter what, you create you can get people behind you.
“I think Memphis is fantastic if you want to start something. It's so open and receptive to almost any concept. Everyone here loves local, so if you start something local in Cooper-Young, people in Cooper-Young will support you because they're so proud to be there. Memphis just loves Memphis,” says Castle. “I hope to see Memphis continue doing what it’s been doing since before I got here. Just continually growing and improving, embracing new things and change. We’re celebrating the 200th birthday, which is huge! I hope it just continues to get better. There is no better time to be a Memphian than right now.”