"It's almost like Christmas," said D. Canale & Co. president and Old Dominick Distillery founder Chris Canale Jr., as construction workers carefully removed the white plastic sheeting covering his downtown distillery's new column still last Wednesday.
The installation of the column still — a skinny column that stretches two floors of the distillery's building at 301 Front and looks like something from a steampunk fantasy with its multiple portholes and copper finish — is the latest construction milestone for Old Dominick Distillery.
Canale's great-grandfather Dominico Canale is the inspiration for the distillery. Dominico moved to Memphis from Italy in 1859. He operated a fruit cart for a while, but once he acquired a refrigerated truck, he was able to distribute beer. Eventually, Dominico graduated to bourbon and bottled some Kentucky-made bourbon under his own name and continued that practice until Prohibition put him out of the bourbon business.
In keeping with his great-grandfather's tradition, Canale, whose family company still specializes in beer distribution, will distill bourbon at Old Dominick. Head distiller Alexandra Castle says the distillery should be ready to launch its first products in September. The distillery is expected to be open to the public for tours, tastings, and special events by February 2017.
Although the distillery has a focus on bourbon, they'll be starting out with vodkas since bourbon takes years to age. When products launch in September, Castle said they'll have an original vodka, a flavored vodka, and a heritage whiskey that existed when the original Old Dominick whiskey existed.
"Starting with a moonshine is common practice, but we decided that East Tennessee has the moonshine thing down. So we're starting with vodka," said Castle, who spent four years working at Wild Turkey in Kentucky before Canale recruited her for the job at Old Dominick. "If you're doing a grain-based vodka, you're going through the same still as whiskey. But then we send it through a second system and re-distill it."
Eventually, the distillery will release Tennessee-style whiskey, which Castle says is similar to bourbon but goes through an additional charcoal filtering process. They'll also be producing a wheat whiskey, which she says will be lighter in flavor and smoother than more traditional whiskeys. Those whiskeys will age in oak barrels for a couple years.
"Bourbons have a little vanilla and caramel flavor, and that comes from the oak barrels. Whiskey comes off the system colorless, but if you've ever seen a whiskey in a bottle, you know it's not colorless," Castle said. "The liquid goes in and out of the wood, so you let it experience weather changes. We'll have it upstairs in a room that isn't climate-controlled, and we'll open the windows to let the air circulate."
There's plenty of room inside the Old Dominick Distillery for aging oak barrels and all sorts of fermenters and equipment. The location, inside the old Memphis Machineworks and Supply building, is actually made up of three buildings that were, at one time, opened up into one large space. The $5 million construction project has been underway for more than a year.
Two tasting rooms are under construction, and the building will also feature 10,000 feet of event space and 5,000 feet of restaurant space. The restaurant will be leased out to a restaurateur, but Canale hasn't yet worked out a deal to determine what restaurant will be there.
Even though Old Dominick hasn't even begun production yet, they're already looking to the future.
"The fermenters were designed for expansion. We can double each one by cutting down the legs and adding to the top," Castle said. "This building is great because it's big enough to accommodate expansion."