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STREETSEEN  |  Alex Castle

Photo by Steve Roberts

Alex Castle: Crafting a Career as a Master Distiller

Story by Emily Adams Keplinger

When Old Dominick Distillery was founded a little more than four years ago, Alex Castle was part of the start-up crew. She signed on as Master Distiller and has been helping put Old Dominick on the proverbial map ever since. Not many women do what Castle does for a living, but she says the number is increasing. And even her own career path wasn’t exactly a straight line to the job she loves so much.

Castle was born in Burlington, Kentucky, a small town north of Lexington that sits outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. While in high school and giving thought to her future, Castle considered marine biology, But, after taking a biology course she realized that was not her calling.

“I hated it,” exclaimed Castle. “However, I fell in love with chemistry and after talking with my mother about what options I might have as a chemistry major, I learned how a degree in chemical engineering could lead to a career in brewing or distilling. I was intrigued and knew it sounded like something I wanted to do. And I’m sure living in Kentucky, not far from the famed Kentucky Bourbon Trail, was an influence.”

While pursuing her degree at the University of Kentucky, Castle landed a co-op position with a company in Lexington that specialized in animal nutrition supplements —and they also had a small brewery. While Castle was working there they added a distillery to their facility and Castle was asked to run the stills. 

After graduation, she moved to Bowling Green to work as an engineering supervisor at a detergent factory. She was there about a year when a former co-worker reached out to her about job opening as a supervisor at Wild Turkey in Lawrenceburg.

“It was a great job and it gave me wonderful experience,” said Castle. “I was there about four years when opportunity came knocking again. The phone rang and it was a consultant who had found me on Linked-In. He was seeking candidates for the head distiller position for a new craft distillery in Memphis. That happened on Good Friday of 2015, and by May I was in Memphis interviewing for the job. My first visit to Memphis was during the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest. Needless to say, I saw Memphis at its best and couldn’t wait to move here.”

And move here she did, in September 2015. In the midst of construction at Old Dominick, Castle stepped in to help finalize equipment selection. She also had a hand in developing the distillery’s Memphis Toddy and its Honeybell Citrus Vodka. Since Old Dominick opened in May 2017, Castle says she has been making and storing as much whiskey as possible. Whiskey making involves milling grains, a fermentation process of combining grains with yeast, then distilling higher proof alcohol comes into play. From start to finish the process takes about six days.The final product is then put into barrels made of new American White Oak to be stored for 2 - 4 years. 

When asked what she would like the public to know about her trade, Castle said, “All bourbons are whiskeys, but not all whiskeys are bourbons. Whiskey is like the umbrella of these spirits with different categories such as Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish. To be a bourbon, the product has to meet three criteria; be made in America, be 51% corn, and be aged in new American White Oak barrels.”

As for her future plans, Castle says she is working on the release of a gin, and potentially, a wheat whiskey, to add to the current offerings of three whiskeys, a vodka and their Memphis Toddy (a botanical-flavored bourbon with hints of citrus and cinnamon).

“I’m proud to part of a multigenerational family business that spans more than 200 years in my industry of choice,” said Castle. “And I love Memphis so much that I now consider myself to be a Memphian.” 

Old Dominick Distillery is at 305 S. Front Street in Downtown Memphis.

 

STREETSEEN  |  Zach Nicholson

Photo by Steve Roberts

Zach Nicholson: Putting Down Roots on Broad

Story by Emily Adams Keplinger

Lucky Cat Ramen chef Zach Nicholson has spent years honing his craft. His earliest lessons came as a small child in St. Louis, Missouri.

“I always liked being in the kitchen and enjoyed making meals with my mother,” said Nicholson. “But, I never took cooking seriously until I was in my 20s. Our family came to Memphis when I was a teenager. After graduating from high school, I enrolled in the University of Memphis as a political science major. Before long I realized that I wanted to explore other options and decided to go to culinary school. I enrolled in L’Ecole Culinaire on Germantown Parkway.”

About the same time, Nicholson got his first kitchen job working for Erling Jensen. Soon Nicholson found he was learning at a much faster rate in Jensen’s kitchen than in the classroom. Jimmy Gentry, who was an instructor at L’Ecole Culinaire at the time, was also cooking on the line in Jensen’s kitchen. With Gentry’s assurance, Nicholson opted to pursue his culinary quest via a hands-on approach and left the classroom all together. The rest of Nicholson’s education has been directly through the trade.

“At Erling’s, I worked all of the various stations up to sous chef,” explained Nicholson. “It was a tremendous experience and made me hungry to go on the road to explore other places and other restaurants. I worked in Austin, Texas, then traveled to upstate New York where I met my future wife, Sarah, who was an executive pastry chef. We went back to Austin before returning to Memphis to get married. I started back with Erling and Sarah was hired by Hollywood Feed to develop their recipes and their dog bakery on Union.”

Over time, Nicholson went to work for Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman, most recently as sous chef at Hog & Hominy. 

“After we worked for other people, we gained enough confidence to start something of our own,” recalled Nicholson. “I had consulted for a Japanese ramen restaurant in Austin, so that concept wasn’t new to us when we started thinking about what we wanted to do in Memphis.”

Nicholson and his wife wrote a business plan for a food truck and bought some cooking equipment. With the help of friends, the couple hosted their first pop-up event at City & State on Broad Avenue in December 2016. That event led them to connect with Mary Tanner, owner of The Cove. She allowed them to do their Ramen Pop-Ups on Sundays at her place.

“For five or six months, the place was packed like sardines every Sunday,” said Nicholson. “We are really grateful to Mary for her support and she continues to be a very important part of our lives.”

The Nicholsons hosted a number of pop-ups at Wise Acre and Memphis Made Brewery, too.  Realizing they had built their following, they felt ready to take it to the next level. They found a location at Peabody and Cooper and began what they term a “permanent pop-up,” because it wasn’t a fully functional restaurant (no bar, drinks were out of a cooler, etc.). A year and a half later, they are transitioning from pop-up to brick-and-mortar. And it’s not just the location that’s changed, the new restaurant is called “Lucky Cat,” dropping the “Ramen” from its name. Nicholson continues to lead in the kitchen while Sarah handles the administrative duties.

“Our life is coming full circle as we return to Broad Avenue,” said Nicholson. “We’re opening with just dinner, Monday through Saturday, but hope to add lunch in the Spring. In our new location we are expanding space-wise, as well as diversifying our menu, We still offer many of our ramen dishes, but we wanted to do more with our cuisine. We are moving to smaller composed plates, more shareable fun appetizers, with items such as dumplings, a number of grilled Yakitori items, and a couple of raw dishes.” 

Lucky Cat is at 2583 Broad. Call (901) 249-6968 for more information.