5 Star Stories: Memphis distillery stands the test of time

Updated: May. 26, 2020 at 9:09 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A Memphis distillery is standing the test of time, thanks to a family who's seen it all, over the past century-plus.

The founders of Old Dominick Distillery are no strangers to crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic was no match for their fortitude.

If the neon rooster along the Memphis city skyline didn’t wake up your sense of intrigue, then maybe Old Dominick Distillery’s response to COVID-19 did.

“Never once in my mind did it occur to me that I would have to stop making whiskey and start making hand sanitizer,” said Old Dominick’s Master Distiller and Senior Vice President Alex Castle in mid-March, as she shook her head in disbelief.

Old Dominick is currently partnering with Shelby County Schools and other organizations to provide hand sanitizer to low-income families, the elderly and the homeless community of Shelby County.

Before the pandemic hit the Mid-South, Castle gave WMC Action News 5’s Kontji Anthony a tour of the distillery, bar, gift shop, and event space perched along South Front Street.

As Castle walked passed pots of brewing mash, she noted the smell.

“Depending on the stage, it sometimes smells like bread, almost like a fresh bakery," she said.

Under the tutelage of the first female head distiller in the state of Tennessee, Old Dominick produced 9,000 cases of spirits in 2019 across six states just four years after inception, the length of time it can take a barrel of whiskey to age.

“We're starting to win awards for both the liquid and even the packaging design,” she smiled.

Accolades that are now part of a legacy more than a century in the making.

“This is an old price sheet for Old Dominick Whiskey,” said Chris Canale, as he walked through the distillery’s vestibule pointing at one of many framed family mementos. “You could get a quart for a dollar and 10 cents and it was recommended for medicinal purposes.” He smiled at that thought.

Canale is the founder and president of Old Dominick Distillery, and if his last name sounds familiar, it should. “We’ve got 150 years of distribution experience and that’s in our blood,” he told us.

The distillery’s Memphis Toddy Bourbon was a Canale family signature in the 1800s. “One of the largest wine and spirits wholesalers in the region in the late 1800s, and of course, back then that was basically the Western frontier,” he added.

In 1866, Canales’ great-great-grandfather Dominico, known here as Dominic, came by boat from Italy and sold produce from a pushcart on Memphis streets before getting into the bourbon business.

He died three days before Prohibition began in 1920.

“We were in this institutional food business, kitchen supplies, you name it, but that's what kept us alive until Prohibition ended, and it was because we had built all these refrigerated warehouses in the city, and being in the food and produce business, that had all the beer companies come knocking,” he explained.

In 1938, the Canales became the sole American distributor for Anheiser-Busch. More than 70 years later, the family sold the business, and Chris Canale got into investing, but he missed the family business.

He shared the moment that changed everything.

“There are a lot of old bottles of whiskey sitting on the shelf, and we’ve never thought anything about it, but they’ve been in our conference room since prohibition," said Canale. "This guy was like, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ We told him it was an old brand, we used to be in the whiskey business before prohibition. Called a consultant and he convinced us that it was safe to drink. Wasn’t very good because, you know, the fruits and it had been sitting there for 100 years.”

It was enough to create a spark, but recreating the recipe took some effort.

“We took samples and we worked with a gentleman out in California to reverse-engineer the product. My cousin and I, my cousin Alex (not Alex Castle), who works here as well. We like to joke that, you know, Dominic left us a bottle, he didn’t leave us a recipe. He was kind enough to do that,” Canale added.

With a renewed spirit, the Canales opened Old Dominick June 24, 2017.

“So I guess 150, 161 years we've come 100 yards,” Canale chuckled.

In 2020, the family has reinvented the brand, while maintaining the fortitude of Dominico and their mascot, the Dominicker chicken.

“From what we’ve read about them, they’re very hardy, you know, they adapt well to various weather conditions and food supply conditions, which interestingly, this family business of ours has survived two world wars and yellow fever epidemics, and so that’s the story," said Canale. “The Dominicker chicken and the story of D. Canale Company go hand-in-hand.”

To learn more about the distillery or to stock your own bar with their products, click here:

Read more Mid-South coronavirus coverage here

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