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It’s not that uncommon for kids growing up in Kentucky to have dreams about becoming Master Distillers when they grow up. Alex Castle knew from an early age that she wanted to get a degree in Chemical Engineering and go on to work in the bourbon industry, and fortunately the colleges and universities in Kentucky offer plenty of opportunities for careers in the industry. Bourbon Women recently caught up with Castle to learn more about her background and career, which has recently evolved to see her named Master Distiller at Old Dominick Distillery in Memphis, Tennessee.
BW: What was that “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to make whiskey for a living?
AC: I had determined in high school that I wanted to get into the beverage alcohol industry, but I couldn’t decide between brewing and distilling. I mean, what did I know about either one that could help me decide? Fast forward to college and I landed in a co-op position with a Lexington-based company, Alltech, which also owned Kentucky Ale. I thought, this is my chance to get into brewing! Unfortunately, I was placed in the engineering department, so my only exposure to the brewery was for bottling days every other Friday. But it was better than nothing. During the first few months of my co-op, I kept hearing whispers in the office about the “distillery project” but was never included in those conversations, until the pot stills arrived from Scotland. After a few times of polishing the stills, my boss decided I could observe a distillation. I couldn’t believe it! I showed up that morning, thinking I would stand in the background and just take it all in, but my boss immediately told me he had to leave to take his kids to the dentist. I was so deflated; I would have to go back to the office. However, he instead ran through the whole process in about 5 minutes, told me I could shut everything down if I needed but to otherwise just run the system for the day. I was terrified (what if something exploded??) but also unbelievably excited. I don’t think I stopped smiling for one second that day. And by lunchtime, I knew which direction I wanted to take with my career. I had chosen whiskey…or maybe it chose me. Either way, I had found my passion and my calling.
BW: How many distilleries have you worked at so far and what is one lesson you took with you from each one? Old Dominick is my third distillery.
AC: The first one was Alltech’s Town Branch (before it was actually called Town Branch), and the main lesson I took from my time there was that the whiskey industry, and especially the Kentucky bourbon industry, is a community. You are never alone or on your own; everyone wants to be there for each other. Wild Turkey was stop number 2. I learned how to operate and manage a large production facility, which was invaluable, but I also learned how to hold my own in this male-dominated industry. How to sit at a table with nothing but men (all with considerably more experience than me) and still have my voice and my opinions heard. And my final stop – Old Dominick. There have been almost too many lessons to count, but one that stands out is the importance of staying true to yourself. With so much going on during a start-up and so many PR opportunities, it would be incredibly easy to forget who I am, where I came from and what I stand for. You could really lose yourself in all of the activity. But at the end of the day, you want to know that you stayed you and did what you believed in.
BW: Where do you see Old Dominick’s place in the larger history and tradition of Tennessee Whiskey?
AC: I’d like to think Old Dominick already has a place in history, simply because it was the first whiskey distillery in Memphis since at least Prohibition (possibly ever), which is just amazing to me. And I suppose that solidifies its place in the history and tradition of Tennessee Whiskey, since the first whiskey we distilled was in fact our Tennessee Whiskey. While we do try to be innovative in a lot of ways, I also do try to honor the tradition of whiskey, especially Tennessee Whiskey. And for most of its history, Tennessee Whiskey was only being made in the central to eastern region of the state. Now, we can say that the West is in on the game too.
BW: Do you have any special projects you are working on? Any special or noteworthy releases on the horizon?
AC: I’m always working on small-batch products that are released under our distillery-only R+D line. So I do have a few of those in development right now, including some bourbon aging in ex-beer-ex-bourbon barrels. And we are still working on building up our bar program, which requires us to make every drop of alcohol that goes into our cocktails. While we have a pretty good selection of different spirits already, I’m still developing more options for us to use in our cocktails. And of course, the main thing we are focusing on is our estate produced whiskey portfolio. We’ve been distilling and laying down barrels since 2017 of each of our 3 mash bills (Tennessee Whiskey, High-Rye Bourbon, and Wheat Whiskey). And they’re finally coming of age, so we are in full-on packaging design mode right now to get ready for the first releases coming in 2022.
BW: Tell me about your perfect bourbon weekend in Memphis.
AC: I would have to hit all of the fun cocktail spots! An Old Fashioned or a Manhattan at the Lobby Bar at the Peabody is a must. Who can resist watching the ducks in the fountain?? One of the many delicious bourbon cocktails from Belle Tavern always hits the spot (they have an Old Fashioned that uses cola syrup!). Grab a bite at Max’s Sports Bar, which doesn’t look like much of a bourbon/whiskey spot, but their selection is solid and they price it so you can afford it! (Bonus – their pricing means that bottles move and there is always something new!) And of course, I would have to stop by The Bar at Old Dominick for an after-dinner drink.
Photos Courtesy of Old Dominick. Cover Image photo credit: Mary Kate Steele