In 2015, Kentucky native Alex Castle got the email of a lifetime. She was working as a production supervisor for Wild Turkey at the time, where she had landed soon after getting her chemical engineering degree from the University of Kentucky. The email posed a simple question: Would you be interested in working for a startup distillery in Memphis?
Castle had been at Wild Turkey for more than four years and had gotten a taste of the day-to-day operations of a large bourbon distillery. She loved her job there, but this new opportunity was one she couldn’t pass up. Fast-forward five years, and Castle is now the master distiller and senior vice president of Old Dominick Distillery, located in the heart of downtown Memphis.
Castle has been involved with just about every step of the new distillery — from the facility layout to mash bills and more. Just about 1,300 barrels are now aging and will become part of the first releases under the “Old Dominick” name, which dates back to before Prohibition. Castle has distilled a Tennessee Whiskey, a high-rye bourbon and a wheat whiskey. (Currently, the distillery is selling products under the Huling Station brand, which were contract distilled in 2013 at MGP in Indiana.)
She also creates a distillery-only R&D line that features experimentation with finishes, blending, proofs and other spirits completely. One of the most recent was called All the Cookies Bourbon, in which her high-rye bourbon was finished in barrels that had previously held Meddlesome Brewing’s All the Cookies Ale, an oatmeal raisin cookie imperial brown ale.
We caught up with Castle in the middle of an unprecedented Memphis snowstorm to talk about innovation, whiskey and women in the industry.
The Bourbon Review: You were interested in distilling and beer-making even before you could legally drink. What was it about distilling that sparked your interest?
Alex Castle: You know, I’ve tried to figure that out, and to this day, I’m not sure why when my mom said, “Oooh, you could do this if you go into chemical engineering” … I still don’t know what it was I found so fascinating. My parents didn’t really drink, and I had been to Maker’s Mark when I was really young and thought it smelled bad (We’ll forgive you for that Alex;)). So my experience wasn’t good up to that point.
Once I started getting into it — what I find so appealing — is that it’s the same no matter where you are, whether you’re talking beer or talking spirits. People everywhere understand whiskey. It’s something we can all sit down with — even if you can’t understand what I’m saying — you understand what’s in that bottle and what’s in your glass, and you can enjoy it together. It’s for all walks of life. It doesn’t matter if you’re lower income or higher income.
There’s just something so universal about the industry that I love. It’s a way to be able to interact and influence and impact people everywhere.
TBR: Do you remember the first bourbon you ever tasted?
AC: I don’t remember the first one, because I’m sure it was with my college roommate and I guarantee it was out of a plastic handle. The first couple whiskeys I had I always had them in cocktails, mainly in old fashioneds.
I do remember the first one I had that made me go, “Holy crap, this is good!” It was the summer I was 21, and my mom so bravely decided to do the (Kentucky) Bourbon Trail with me. I say bravely because she doesn’t drink whiskey — even to this day, she hates it.
She took me to pretty much every distillery on the trial at the time. We went to Heaven Hill, and at the time you could pick some of the whiskeys. I chose the Elijah Craig 18 Year. Oh my goodness. Even my mom tried it and said she could drink it.
That was probably the first bourbon that stood out to me and made an impression on me.
TBR: How do you navigate the line between tradition and experimentation?
AC: It is a fun line, especially being from Kentucky, I do absolutely want to honor the tradition of whiskey and bourbon specifically. That’s what’s so nice about Old Dominick: We don’t just make whiskey. I was able to make a gin. I got to go crazy with gin development and get creative with it.
Also we have a distillery-only product line that I was allowed to create, and it allows me complete creative freedom. We’ve done a couple of bourbons — traditionally made bourbons — that we then finish in barrels that originally held our bourbon, then beer, then held our bourbon again.
The recent cookie bourbon was probably my favorite, and that one shows that you can very much toe the line and balance the tradition with the creativity.
TBR: What made you go with a wheat whiskey in your starting product line?
AC: We wanted something a little different. I think by having those three mash bills, we really do kind of cover the gamut. You have to think, in 2014, there really weren’t too many wheat whiskeys out there. There was an opening in the market then, and of course now people are trying to fill it.
TBR: What’s the story behind Old Dominick’s Memphis Toddy liqueur?
AC: In 2013, the current president had found this bottle called Dominick Toddy. It was still full and still wax sealed. We know this product existed before Prohibition because we have old advertisements on it.
It was actually from that bottle that started the idea to bring Old Dominick back and open a distillery. They also wanted to bring that product back to life. To this day, we still have never come across a written recipe for the original, so they decided to open that bottle and send some of the liquid to a lab in California.
They were able to give us a list and an idea of the ingredients that were present. And from that point, we just kind of reverse-engineered it to today’s product. That original bottle we found has turned — it’s basically black. I’m not gonna taste it! But today’s Memphis Toddy is basically just a fun little cocktail in a bottle.
TBR: Any interest in distilling spirits like brandy or rum?
AC: Nothing is ever off the table. Here in Tennessee, to be able to make a cocktail at our bar, I have to make every drop of alcohol that goes into it. Kentucky is allowed to serve cocktails, so we thought we’d ask for the same thing. Well, Tennessee wants to make it difficult.
So for us to be able to make a Sazerac, you make rye whiskey or bourbon — no problem. But you need absinthe. We actually produce a full line of liqueurs and other spirits that we use for our bar. We do make an absinthe, a fernet, a traditional amaro, we make a Campari-like spirit, and an orange curacao. We do a those on a very small scale.
I’m sure a rum or brandy will soon be added to that list in the near future.
TBR: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned from your time at Wild Turkey?
AC: It was definitely very traditional. I was in production, so I oversaw grain receiving, milling, fermentation, and I also managed the dry house with all the spent grain. There was a lot I learned simply because of the scale of what we did there.
I did absolutely learn that there is tradition to bourbon, and it’s there for a reason. Yes, you can modernize things. I started there right after they opened the new facility, so you’re talking tons of modernization and automation — things I’m sure (Master Distiller) Jimmy Russell would never thought would happen. There’s absolutely room to bring bourbon into the modern world, but to do so while honoring the traditions that have made it what it is today.
TBR: Any Jimmy Russell stories?
AC: Not a ton, but everyone always asks me this. He was traveling a lot while I was there, going to all these bourbon festivals and whatnot. My favorite times with Jimmy was when he’d come into the control room and sit down with us telling stories about other distillers and the industry. We could be in there two hours or more!
TBR: As a woman in the whiskey business, do you think you’re treated any differently?
AC: I was fortunate enough to get into the industry when I was 21, so it’s been over a decade at this point. Working at three distilleries now, I have never honestly felt like I’ve ever been treated differently.
I’ve been fortunate with my bosses and co-workers that they always saw me as capable. They’d teach me how to do something, and then once they taught it to me, I was expected to do it on my own from that point on.
TBR: What’s your advice for other women who might be interested in distilling?
AC: If it’s something you’re really passionate about, it’s worth fighting to get into it. I know there aren’t a lot of opportunities, but I think there are definitely more today than when I started out.
If you really think you’re passionate about it, fight to get in, even if it’s a bottom-of-the-wrung position. Work hard and prove yourself, because this industry is worth it.
TBR: What’s the most prized bottle in your collection?
AC: I probably have two. One of them is actually a bottle of Pearse Lyons Reserve, which was the first whiskey I ever made. I worked for Town Branch Distillery while I was in college (in Lexington, Ky.), and filled the first 100 or so barrels. When it hit the shelf, I had to go buy a bottle, because that was my whiskey.
That’s a bottle that’ll never be opened. I tend to say you have to open every bottle you buy, but I’ll make an exception for that one.
The second bottle: In 2019, Memphis and Shelby County celebrated its bicentennial. Old Dominick did a special two-year-old Tennessee Whiskey release. This is my juice that was bottled for the first time. We honored 200 Memphians, so each bottle had a different name on it. It was a really fun project.
My boss wanted us to add to the 200 names, so we made a bottle for every employee at Old Dominick at the time. I have a bottle with my name on it, and on the back of each bottle is a toast to the person. So that’s a special one. Not only does it have my Tennessee Whiskey in a bottle, but it has my name on it, too.