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Whiskey Is In Their Blood

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
September 13, 2023 3:00 am

Whiskey Is In Their Blood

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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September 13, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, the Old Dominick Distillery story starts back in 1859 with an Italian immigrant and a fruit cart that grew to be one of the largest distribution companies in the South. Add in a Kentucky woman who didn't drink until she was 21 (Alex Castle), and you get the first whiskey distillery in Memphis as well as the first female head distiller in the state of Tennessee since Prohibition. 

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Including your stories, send them to OurAmericanStories.com. They're some of our favorites. And we especially love bringing you stories about family businesses. And today we bring you one with a long history that begins with a fruit cart in 1859. Here is Alex Castle, the master distiller at Old Dominic Distillery, to tell us the history of this Memphis family business. So one of the best things to me about working for Old Dominic and Deacon Alley and Company is the history of it. That history dates back to 1866 and it is very tangible history. That whole family held onto so many documents and ledger books and letters.

I don't know what they were thinking when they held onto it all but I know we're very happy that it's there now. The family history isn't just some story that's been passed down by word of mouth. It is a history that is very, very real and that we can show to everyone just how authentic that story is.

And to be able to be a part of such an authentic story and hopefully be a part of its history eventually is very rewarding. So our founder, Domenico Canale, was an Italian immigrant and he came over to the States in 1859. Landed in New Orleans and decided to take a riverboat up to Memphis. He already had family here. His uncle had a business already. He decided to work for his uncle.

That building is literally about 100 yards from the current distillery. Worked for him for a couple years and decided to start his own company in 1866 at which time he founded Deacon Alley and Company. Started off as a modest little fruit cart and he would just go up and down what is now Front Street selling fruit. Over the years that grew, became a much bigger distribution company. Started distributing beer because he had refrigerated trucks and decided in the midst of all of that to found Old Dominic Whiskey. He did not distill his own product but he did buy H product barrels from other states. So we have records of barrels from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and he would bring them down on the railroads and blend them here under the label of Old Dominic. It was actually one of the biggest whiskey brands in the southern region during that time. And of course prohibition hit and so Old Dominic Whiskey had to stop being produced.

Fortunately the other parts of the company continued on. So the fruit distribution, the beer distribution, all of that continued on through prohibition. And sadly, Dominico did not see the repeal of prohibition.

He actually died just a few days before it was repealed. Deacon Alley and Company continued on just without the whiskey. During it up to, I guess it was the late 90s, they actually sold off the food distribution but still maintained the beer distribution that they had. And so they were the Anheuser-Busch distributor in Memphis. And then in 2010, I believe it was, they actually sold that off as well. And so they kind of had lost all of their Memphis foothold.

They had other businesses, other investments, just nothing actually in Memphis. And so in 2013, when they found a bottle of Dominic Totty, basically they found this bottle full, still wax sealed. And they decided to crack it open. I believe one of them actually tasted the liquid but had that liquid analyzed. They sent it to California to see if we could figure out what actually was in that product because with all of the documents that the family held on to, they never held on to the recipe for this product.

Go figure. And so with the help of a lab out in California, they learned the different components that were present in that bottle. Couldn't figure out the exact ratios or anything like that, so no specific recipe, but they were able to figure out what was in it. And then from there, we essentially reverse engineered it. And so today's president, Chris Canale Jr., wanted to see the company get back to Memphis, wanted more than just their headquarters to be here. He decided this seems like a cool idea. Someone said, well, why don't you sell the brand?

He said, no, this is how we get back to Memphis. And so he and his cousin Alex Canale decided to open up what is now Old Dominic Distillery. That construction project officially started in 2015. And that was the same year that they decided to bring on a head distiller. And I was lucky enough to get a message on LinkedIn.

I had nothing better to do. And I said, sure, I'll come down for an interview and ended up deciding to move to Memphis that same year. And so about a year of construction and we were actually ready to produce the first whiskey, not just out of Old Dominic, but the first whiskey produced in Memphis ever.

There were no distilleries here even before Prohibition. So December of 2016 was kind of a big year for Old Dominic and for Memphis. And then flash forward a couple months, May of 2017, and we were actually finished with all of construction and open to the public for our first tours at the beginning of May. And since then, we have added multiple products. We now have two vodkas. We have our Memphis toddy. We have a gin that's about to come out. And we also have our Huelling Station bourbon and even the Huelling Station line. We're about to release even more products under it.

So it's been a very, very busy two, two and a half years. And again, you're listening to Alex Castle and she's the head distiller at Old Dominic Distillery. What a thing to do and what a way to honor a family heritage and what a way to honor a city. And when we come back, we'll hear more of this remarkable story from head distiller Alex Castle.

The story of Old Dominic Distillery, a local story, Oxford, where we broadcast is a mere hour's drive south from the great city of Memphis. The story continues here on Our American Story. Folks, if you love the great American stories we tell and love America like we do, we're asking you to become a part of the Our American Stories family. If you agree that America is a good and great country, please make a donation. A monthly gift of seventeen dollars and seventy six cents is fast becoming a favorite option for supporters. Go to Our American Stories dot com now and go to the donate button and help us keep the great American stories coming.

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Here's Alex to tell us her story. So I am originally from Kentucky. I grew up in a small town called Burlington.

It's about 12 miles south of Cincinnati, Ohio. It was definitely a type A, so when I got to high school, I fell in love with maths and sciences and knew I wanted to do something with them. And I was talking to my mom, trying to figure out, you know, what could I do with my life?

Because at 15, you need to know what you're going to do with the rest of your life. And she had been reading some articles and came across chemical engineering. I was like, that sounds perfect, but I can't teach, so what do you do with that? And my mom, who doesn't drink, said you can make beer and be a brewmaster, or you can be a master distiller and make bourbon. But that's perfect.

That's exactly what I want to do. Truthfully, I have no idea why it sounded interesting, because I was one of those people in high school who did not drink. And like I said, my mom didn't drink. We didn't have bourbon in the house.

Up to that point, my only experience with bourbon was my parents taking me to Maker's Mark when I was about five or six years old. And I hated it. Absolutely hated it. I remember my dad sticking his finger in the fermenter and eating it, and I thought I was going to throw up. It just was so gross to me.

I didn't like the smell of that room. And then, I can't remember if it was the start of the tour or the end of the tour, but they were handing out fudge. I'm a kid. I absolutely want some fudge. No one told me it was bourbon fudge. That does not taste like fudge.

It was horrible. So that being my only experience with bourbon, I really have no idea why I ended up in this industry. But when I was 15 or 16, that just, it sounded so perfect. And being from Kentucky, it was a part of my heritage, even if we weren't involved in it. And so I went to the University of Kentucky to study chemical engineering, and was fortunate enough to get a co-op while I was in school with a small company, not so small now, but a small company in Lexington called Altec. And at the time, they did animal nutrition supplements and had a brewery.

And I thought, that's perfect, because I thought I wanted to do beer. Well, while I was there, they sneakily added two pot stills into the brewery and had no one to run them or clean them, for that matter. And so my boss sent me and one other person from the engineering office to clean them because they had come all the way from Scotland, so they had a lot of dirt on them from the travel. And shortly after that is when he asked me if I wanted to observe a distillation.

So not just polish the stills, but you can actually help run them. And instead of observing, I actually got to run the distillation that day. My boss forgot that he had to take his kids to the dentist that day. So I show up, and he says that, and I think, oh, man, now I have to go to the office.

This is going to be boring. And instead, in about five minutes, ran me through the entire process and said, if you have to, just shut it down. I'll be back later, and then left. And so I ran the stills that day. I did not have to shut them down, thankfully. And I guess because I managed to do that that first day, I was cheap labor. I didn't have to hire anyone else, so they just let me do it from that point on.

So I filled over the first 100 barrels, I believe it was, of Pierce Lions Reserve. And from that day on, that was all I wanted to do. I just wanted to make whiskey. And so I set off on that path and have been fortunate enough to know people in the industry and get my foot in the door and have stayed in it ever since. So after college, I did one year making laundry detergent, because the industry, while it was growing, everyone was still so new. Nobody was making money, which meant they couldn't hire anybody.

So no one was hiring at the time. But fortunately, one of the guys I used to work with at Altec remembered that I wanted to be in the industry, and so connected me with his friend who was a recruiter and was hiring for Wall Turkey. And so I managed to get on as a distillery production supervisor at Wall Turkey about a year after I graduated college and worked there for four years. Started off as the number two supervisor. Then about a month, that supervisor got shifted to a different department, so I very quickly became the number one supervisor. And so for four years, I was overseeing olive production at Wall Turkey, responsible for third shift and first shift, so the hours for that were spectacular.

I woke up at 2 a.m. every day, so definitely cut my teeth in a really good way up there. And then it was randomly the beginning of 2015 that I got that message on LinkedIn asking if I knew anyone who would be interested in a startup distillery in Memphis. And I took about two days to think about it and sent my resume in. And my first trip to Memphis was for the interview, and I fell in love with the place, I fell in love with the city immediately, but also fell in love with the company.

Everyone I met during that weekend was absolutely fantastic. And then they actually brought me into the distillery, which at the time was a completely empty building. The stairs were absolutely terrifying, but I went up them in heels. But seeing the space and seeing how much work was to be done, I could see the challenge that it was. And at the time I didn't know I wanted that kind of challenge, but seeing it, having it put right in front of me, I realized that's exactly what I needed. And so it just, the whole concept of really doing start to finish with this company and with this brand was so thrilling. Creating a new brand and product is incredibly stressful, but it was exhilarating. And so just the distillery itself, because we do consider the physical space a product for us, I actually got to sit in on interior design meetings. So I got to help pick tile for the bathrooms and light fixtures, and I was amazed at how much I enjoyed that. And then with the products themselves, of course, had to develop the liquid, which was super fun. My nerdy side came out, but I also got to have input on the bottles themselves, the labels, how they looked, everything. I got input on all of it. Whereas where I came from, I had no say in any of that.

I would never have say in any of that. And so to be able to put my stamp on every aspect of the product and the brand, it was incredibly rewarding. So yeah, I'm fortunate to have owners who really do trust their employees, put faith in their employees.

If they hired you to do something, they're going to do everything they can to make sure they let you do that job. And on a personal level, it's great. I actually do get along with them. We're friends. We've gone on trips together. And over the years, I think I've proven myself to them to where they've let me take more and more control and kind of oversee the day-to-day operations of the distillery.

Don't let anyone tell you you can't do it. Women engineers aren't really a thing or weren't a thing when I entered college, and female distillers weren't a thing at the time either. So there were a lot of people who were saying that, maybe go somewhere else, maybe do something else. And I ignored all of them and just pushed through, and now you see female distillers everywhere. You see women opening their own distilleries.

It is fantastic. Seeing women in the industry goes right along with just how much the industry has grown and changed in recent years. It used to be super labor-intensive and rolling around a 500-pound barrel. Not the easiest thing. Most women probably don't really want to do that. But so many things are now automated that that labor aspect really isn't there. Yes, the working conditions can be very interesting. Women are standing in 150-degree temperatures on a regular basis. Women can put up with that just as well as men.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-10-03 01:44:43 / 2023-10-03 01:53:58 / 9

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