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Meet the Memphis Master Distiller: Alex Castle

Photo for: Meet the Memphis Master Distiller: Alex Castle

21/02/2022 Master Distiller of Old Dominick, Alex Castle shares her journey from dreaming to become a Marine Biologist to being Kentucky's first woman head distiller.

Alex Castle is the Master Distiller and Senior Vice President at The Old Dominick Distillery, located in the heart of Memphis, Tennessee. Kentucky-born, Alex has always been around Bourbon and decided to be a distiller in her high school. In this male-dominated industry of beverage distillation, she has been the first female head distiller in Kentucky since prohibition. Being creative and innovative, Alex describes herself as "a restless experimenter". She has worked with the Bourbon giant Wild Turkey, as a distillery supervisor before joining Old Dominick as a Head Distiller. She has been with Old Dominick Distillery since it reopened again after prohibition and her passion, dedication and her love for craft spirits have led to the rise in popularity of Old Dominick's carefully crafted spirits. Apart from creating great spirits, she is also The President of the Tennessee Distillers Guild, Board Member at the Spirits Hub, and the member of Craft Advisory at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. 

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Tell us a little about yourself? What led you to join the Beverage Distillation industry? How has your role developed from your previous role at Wild Turkey? 

Being from Kentucky, I would love to say that bourbon was in my blood and something I loved from day one but I actually spent my childhood knowing I wanted to be a marine biologist… and then I took biology in high school and realized how much I hated it! Fortunately, I quickly found chemistry, physics, and calculus and absolutely fell in love! Through a conversation with my mom, I learned about chemical engineering, and when I asked my mom what you could do with that degree, she said “You can make beer and be a brewmaster, or you can make bourbon and be a master distiller”.

And somehow, I knew that was the direction I needed to go! Fast forward to college and I landed a co-op with a company called Alltech, which owned a small brewery, and while I was there, they actually brought over two pot stills from Scotland to add to the brewery. My boss knew how much I wanted to explore distilling, so he let that be one of my “projects”. After that first distillation, I knew that whiskey was my future. I had the privilege of filling the first 100 barrels of what would become Pearse Lyons Reserve (now Town Branch). A year after earning my degree in Chemical Engineering, I was offered a job at Wild Turkey, where I worked as a Production Supervisor for 4 years. Now 6 years after leaving Wild Turkey, my role today is radically different than what I was used to. Not only am I responsible for a lot more than just one small part of the overall production process, but I also get to help with product development, packaging design, events…the list goes on and on!

What does your typical day look like? 

I’m not sure I even know what “typical” is anymore when talking about my day! It’s pretty common to start my day in the aging loft, evaluating barrels to see which ones qualify as “single barrels”. I try to get through a tasting before anyone else gets to the distillery so I can focus solely on tasting. The rest of the day is always up in the air at that point – daily paperwork and reporting, check-ins with the various heads of departments, long-term planning meetings, and calls with the various boards on which I sit. If I’m lucky, I get to finish the day with a drink at our bar!

Alex Castle

Alex Castle, Source: Old Dominick Distillery

According to you, what makes a spirit great? Where do you draw inspiration from while distilling a new spirit? What role do you think does a Distributor and Retailer play in the development of a new spirit by Old Dominick?  

What qualifies as a “great spirit” is so subjective, and gets even more complicated once you start talking about gin versus vodka versus whiskey versus you name it. But for me, I want the spirit to adhere to the definition of the category – vodka should be odorless and flavorless, gin should be botanical, bourbon should have some grain flavor but also have those wonderful sweet notes that come from the barrel. And I don’t want any of them to burn my throat as they go down. Beyond that, all bets are off. What botanicals should be in a gin? You tell me and convince me that they belong there…the more variety, the better! Should whiskey be corn forward, rye forward, malt-forward? How oaky should it be? I welcome it all. That is what’s so great about the spirits industry…there is so much variety and so much to experience.

How do you work with the Distributors to increase sales? 

I’m fortunate enough to have a great sales team who handles the majority of our distributor interactions, but I do try to make time for their GSM calls (everyone switching to virtual during the pandemic has made this so much easier!) and I volunteer to do in-store tastings anytime they need me!

How do you work in harmony with the Restaurants, Pubs, and Retailers? How do you think they can help you to increase sales and how can you work with them to innovate and expand?

In-store tastings, distiller’s dinners, cocktail creation collaborations, sponsoring events at the account…Old Dominick really tries to work with all of our accounts in whatever way works best for them. As a spirits brand, we need our various on-premise and off-premise partners to help spread the word and help educate the consumer. Having a waiter or bartender recommend our spirit to a customer can lead to a lifetime supporter of the brand. And I always appreciate seeing their creativity in hosting events or creating flavor combinations I never dreamed of.

Alex Castle holding the Impact Award for Emerging Leaders at The Distilled Spirits Council

Alex Castle holding the Impact Award for Emerging Leaders at The Distilled Spirits Council, Source: Instagram / Alex Castle

How do you focus on growing Old Dominick spirits at the local bars? What are some of your signature cocktails? 

Our sales team is great about visiting our on-premise accounts on a regular basis, offering up cocktail suggestions, or helping sample experimental recipes. Personally, I tend to lean towards more classic cocktails – Old Fashioneds, Gin & Soda, Manhattans, etc.

What does Old Dominick's DTC (Direct To Consumer) channel look like? Can you give us a brief overview of it? What are the different avenues of DTC sales for Old Dominick Distillery? 

Unfortunately, Tennessee does not allow distilleries to ship directly to consumers, but we have found partners outside of the state who can ship directly where it is legal. We’ve partnered with LibDib, Spirits Hub, and Seelbach’s to help make our products more accessible. As laws change state-to-state, I’m sure we’ll find even more partners to help get our product out there.

What kind of changes has taken place in the distillery since the Pandemic? With the decrease in DTC sales due to the Pandemic, how have you planned to increase them? 

Fortunately, the Distillery has been able to get back to business as usual, just with a bit more cleaning/sanitizing between tours. There aren’t any long-lasting effects from the pandemic. The pandemic did help our team see just how important our retail partners are to us; they more than anyone pivoted quickly to adopt curbside pick-up and delivery options where they’re able. While we haven’t really changed how we handle DTC, we have definitely seen some of our partners pick up in volume as a result of the ever-changing consumer landscape.

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Does Social Media play an important role for your brand? As a Master Distiller, how do you optimize it? 

I think social media plays a huge role in almost any business nowadays, but especially for a consumer-facing business like a distillery. For Old Dominick, it’s one of the easiest and most effective ways for us to re-connect with people who have visited the distillery or attended one of our events. And while I don’t really do anything with Old Dominick’s official social media pages, I do try to utilize my personal pages to further promote the brand and even give a behind-the-scenes look into what is going on at the distillery. I’ve even dropped hints about multiple product releases from my pages and will continue to do so.

Alex Castle

Source: Old Dominick Distillery

What are some of the recent upgrades and innovations in terms of technology in the distillery? What do you think are some of the upcoming innovative Spirits trends in the US market? 

Distilling is a very old process, one of which hasn’t really evolved a whole lot since it started. Our equipment is nicer and better made, and we now have automation built into most aspects of the process, which makes it both more efficient and safer. Beyond that, we’re seeing distillers experiment more with flavors and raw material than with equipment. I love seeing the innovation taking place across all spirits categories – as a distiller, I get excited to hear about new ideas and techniques, and as a consumer, I get excited about getting to taste new takes on old favorites. Are some of the things out there a bit too crazy? Perhaps. But they sure are fun to think about.

Can you tell us about your role at Tennessee Distillers Guild? How does it play a role in the growth of the Old Dominick Distillery? How do you think it is beneficial for a distillery to be a part of it?

A few years ago I was elected to the Board of the Tennessee Distillers Guild, which exposed me to legislative conversations, tourism-related meetings, and just broader conversations about the industry in our state. Then in 2020, I was elected President of the Guild, a role that I still hold today. As an active member of the Guild, I’m able to ensure that Old Dominick’s interests are heard. I’m able to ensure that our state representatives know that Old Dominick exists. And of course, being included in Guild press releases and statewide events helps to get our name out there to the consumer. The Guild exists to further improve the environment for distilleries in Tennessee (and nationally when possible); by forming a united front, Tennessee distilleries have really changed the face of the industry in the state and will continue to do so.

Old Dominick Distillery

Source: Instagram / Old Dominick Distillery

What is the biggest challenge you face as a Master Distiller? What is the one tip you would like to give someone who is looking forward to joining the beverage distillation industry? 

One of the biggest challenges for me as a Master Distiller is balancing the need for sales growth (whether with case sales or new product releases) with the desire for maintaining quality, not rushing anything, or making compromises. And for anyone who might want to get into the distilled spirits industry, I would say “Do it!”. If this is something you are truly passionate about, it is worth the long hours, stressful days, and all of the other challenges that come with it.

Finally, which are some of your favorite spirits you have on your shelf? 

I still have a full bottle of each of our R+D releases (distillery only), which I am super proud of, and I love getting to share those with anyone who visits us. And of course, I always have a bottle of Huling Station Bourbon, along with the rest of our portfolio. As for other products, I always have a bottle of Wild Turkey 101, both Bourbon and Rye, at our home bar.

Header image source: Old Dominick Distillery

Interviewed By Prithvi Nagpal, Editor & Sommelier, Beverage Trade Network

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