When she visited Memphis for the first time, Alex Castle didn’t really expect that she would make the city her home a few months later. And yet just a summer after interviewing to lead the efforts at the (brand-new-but-historically-based) Old Dominick Distillery, Alex and her husband were moving to Midtown. Now in place as Head Distiller, Alex has concocted spirits that won’t see the light of day for another year or two, along with others that are as ready to greet Memphis as she was. For this chemical engineer, it’s all about finding the perfect mix.
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I’m originally from northern Kentucky, a small town called Burlington. It’s about 12 miles south of Cincinnati. My parents still live there, in the house I grew up in. I definitely think I got my work ethic from my parents. My mom has been in the banking industry since before I was born. My dad works in a printing factory where they print on aluminum, and has been doing that my whole life. So I’m very familiar with people finding something and just sticking with it for their entire careers.
Did you have female mentors as you pursued science and chemical engineering?
I wish I had a better yes for that. I did have a couple female teachers, just from kindergarten on, who were always incredibly encouraging and supportive. But outside of that, especially as far as the industry goes, there really was no one to look up to.
Do you feel like you have an opportunity now to fill that role for others?
I’d like to think so. I think about my sorority sisters, we feel the same way — we’re hoping that by going into fields and industries that aren’t super common for women, little girls will now have someone they can talk to and look up to.
At what point did you become interested in the chemistry of liquor?
I was in high school, trying to figure out what to do for a living — that’s just how organized I am: I’m 15 and have to know what to do for the rest of my life. And my mom suggested chemical engineering, and the first career out of her mouth was, “You can be a brewmaster and make beer. You could also make bourbon and be a master distiller.” She may have listed other careers. I have no idea. I stopped listening at that point.
What was your first distilling experience like?
Unexpected. I was supposed to observe a distillation. My boss was going to run it, and I was like, “Yes! A day outside the office! This is gonna be wonderful.” And I get there and my boss says, “I forgot I have to take my kids to the dentist.” And I immediately thought, “Great, this means I have to go back to the office for the day.” And instead he goes through the entire process in about five minutes, says, “Call me if you need me,” and leaves. And so I got to run the stills by myself from the get-go. I don’t think I stopped smiling once that day. It was everything I had been looking for, and it was that day that I decided I didn’t want to make beer. I wanted the next step. I wanted to be a distiller.
Are you seeing more women in the industry now?
Definitely. And you would think it was just the craft distilleries, and maybe that’s what started it, but a lot of the bigger ones are starting to have women in the more important roles as master blenders and master distillers. You even see them more just as operators, the people on the floor making the products. And it’s all ages, too. There are a couple of us who are younger, but you’re seeing older ones who are even owning their own distilleries.
Is that something that you consider for the future?
My mom thought that was my end goal, but I don’t think I want to have to deal with the financial side of it. For me, this project, while I don’t own this distillery, I very much feel like it’s mine. I’ve been able to be a part of interior design and branding concepts and product development. I feel like I have a stake in this distillery.
Creating a whiskey or bourbon can take years. How do you handle the wait?
You have to have a lot of patience. It’s exciting, though, because my team and I actually go and we taste our barrels every three months, so it’s a lot of fun to see how it transforms over that time. And fortunately, as a distiller, you’re not just stuck with aged product, you don’t just have to do whiskey that takes four years. We’ve been able to work on vodkas; the turnaround on that is about a week, week and a half. Same with gins. So there are fortunately products that we can make and have fun with that come out immediately.
What do you currently have underway or available at Old Dominick?
Right now we have our two vodkas that are already on the market – a traditional corn-based vodka and our Honeybell citrus-flavored vodka. And right now I’m finalizing a couple different gin recipes that hopefully will launch later this year.
What do you think most people should know about what they drink?
For me, one of the biggest things, regardless of how familiar you are with any spirit, is just enjoy what you’re drinking. Don’t get caught up in trying to impress the people who talk about the complexities of things. If you like how it tastes, then you like how it tastes.
What’s your favorite cocktail?
It totally depends on my mood. I do love a good Manhattan or an Old Fashioned, preferably with a rye whiskey. I love our vodkas on the rocks. I think they drink incredibly well that way. But even something as simple as a gin and tonic can hit the spot.
What has surprised you the most about Memphis?
For a city that’s as big as it is, it is a small town. Everybody knows everyone. I’ve never experienced that anywhere. So it kind of cracks me up that I can’t go anywhere without running into someone who knows somebody I work with.
What are your favorite places in town?
I tend to stay in Midtown; that’s where I live. I’m definitely a big Alchemy fan. They have wonderful cocktails there. For the most part, my husband and I are beer drinkers as well, so we’re at one of the tap rooms in the city every weekend.
What’s your best piece of advice?
Find what you love and pursue it. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s outlandish or you can’t do it. I’m in an industry that ten years ago someone like me would not have been welcomed in, and yet here I am.
What are three things you can’t live without?
My ChapStick, a good book and probably a notebook
Thanks, Alex! To learn more about Alex’s work at Old Dominick Distillery or to book a tour of the distillery, visit olddominick.com.
Thank you to Mary Kate Steele for today’s awesome photos of Alex.
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