Old Dominick Distillery reaches to the past for new artisanal spirits

With 150 years of history behind them, D. Canale & Co. is re-entering the spirits market this year with Old Dominick Distillery. Along with reviving a storied brand, they are reviving 50,000 square feet of space Downtown to house the new business. 
Alexandra “Alex” Castle’s desk above the downtown Huey’s looks out onto the beautiful, wood paneled space of D. Canale & Co. Near her desk is a long counter lined with meticulously labeled bottles of spirits. Yet this isn’t where she really wants to be. Around the corner, at 301 Front Street, sits what will soon be the Old Dominick Distillery. She’d rather be there making vodka and whiskeys. Her wait is almost over.
 
Old Dominick Distillery is the latest venture by D. Canale & Co., operating as Dominick Properties, LLC, which has invested nearly $5 million dollars repurposing the old Memphis Machine Works and Supply building on Front Street. LRK, Inc. is handling the redesign of the 50,000 square feet to house a distillery, a mill works for whole grains, a bottling operation, as well as warehouse space for barreling whiskies. In addition, the facility will have two tasting rooms, host tours, have about 10,000 square feet of event space and 5,000 of restaurant space.
 
“We made the decision to start working on this about three years ago,” said President Chris Canale, Jr. “We’d sold the beer business and the food business. We had a skillset in distribution, marketing and sales. But we also had this great story and brand.”
           
The story is indeed a good one. In 1859 Dominico Canale left his home in Genoa, Italy and stepped off onto the cobblestones not far from where the new distillery is being installed. From there he started selling “everything from avocados to zucchini” then founded D. Canale & Co. in 1866, bottling high-end bourbons and a private label liqueur. Old Dominick became one of the largest spirits brands in the South until national prohibition forced the company into the food business. That flourished as well, and with the repeal of prohibition, D. Canale used its refrigerated trucks and distribution channels to become the Budweiser distributor.
 
“The brand is 150 years old, but it’s been dead for almost 100. The trick is how do you make that new again?” asked Alex Canale, Vice President of Business Development. The company hopes to apply this storied brand and truly American tale to tap into the growing demand for high-end artisanal spirits –  where a sense of place is important.
 
Old Dominick took over three slightly mismatched buildings on Front, with the northern building having a basement with no second story, the southern wing having no basement but a second floor, and a center building with both. The layout was serendipitous, according to Chris. “It was like the space was made for us – it was perfect.”
 
Which is not to say that repurposing the buildings didn’t require a massive overhaul. Despite the old world charm and panache of an old family brand, the fact remains that a modern distillery requires tons of specialized equipment from Vendome in downtown Louisville, Kentuckt as well as miles of pipe to link the various stages of the operation together.
 
Archer Custom Builders is handing the building’s redesign with heavy input from Thoroughbred Spirits, an industry consultant. The company has been careful to retain the great architectural features of the nearly 100 year old building where they can. The process – even in an ideal spot – has been painstaking, but worth the wait. “It’s an engineering marvel,” said Chris. “It just took some time.”
 
The aesthetics are important, as distilling space operates within a glassed “fishbowl” in front of the main tasting room. Overlooking the tops of the pot stills, the restaurant space has not been finalized. Tennessee law prohibits holding both a manufacturer and liquor-by-the-drink licenses, so it will be a separately leased operation.
 
The new business fits within the historic footprint of the 150 year old company save one element, according to Chris. “I don’t know anything about distillation.” He nods to Castle in the dusty shell of what will soon be an operational distillery. “So we made a good hire,” he said.
 
In September, Alex Castle came on board as Head Distiller and will draw on her experience at a small craft distiller co-op and then at Wild Turkey. She plans to be fully operational, albeit on a small scale, by August, producing two vodkas – an original and infused (or flavored) – a whiskey liqueur and three distinct whiskies: a bourbon, a Tennessee whiskey, and a wheated whiskey. Grains can go from the millworks to the vodka bottle in about a week. As such, Old Dominick plans to have its vodkas on the shelves in four states (Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia) by the end of the year. Whiskies, however, are a longer process. “The bourbon we are going to start as soon as we get in,” said Castle. “But you aren’t going to see it for at least two years.”
 
Where that whiskey will sit and mellow is warehousing for about 1,000 barrels, with some overflow space nearby. Depending on the point of view, the absolutely crucial step of “laying up” the barrels is a either very green or just very traditional. “Basically all we’re going to do is open and close the windows. Just like in Kentucky, all we need is distinct seasons, and we’ve got them here.”
 
“We are sure that we can make Memphis proud as a local product. Our goal is to make Memphis proud as a regional product,” she said.
 
To that end, Old Dominick is planning to have its products on the shelves in 12 states by year five.
 
In addition to the restaurant space, there will be some 10,000 sq. ft. of event space with a VIP tasting room and a rooftop deck overlooking South Main Street with 360 degree bar beneath via a skylight. When the distillery is fully functional, it will employ 15 to 20 people full time.
 
Castle, for her part, just wants to make some spirits.

Read more articles by Richard Murff.

Richard has reported from across Latin America, Iraq, Ukraine, Libya and Clarksdale, MS, to name a few places. He has been editor at the Nautilus Publishing and his work has appeared in The Bitter SouthernerThe American SpectatorDelta Magazine, Sail, The Daily News, Oxford Town, and others.
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