Drinks

How Memphis's Only Whiskey Distillery Revived a 150-Year-Old Drink

It involved drinking a bottle they'd had since 1850
Memphis Whiskey Toddy
Photo: Old Dominick Distillery

In 1866, an immigrant from the Italian Riviera named Domenico Canale moved to Memphis where he started a wholesale food business. Later, his company would become the largest distributor of produce in the South and the primary beer distributor for the Mid-South.

But at the time, he was known for something quite different: a whiskey he made named Old Dominick and the cocktail he used it in called the Dominick Toddy (which mixed the spirit with juices and fruits). One sales pamphlet described it as, "a high-class, delicate, healthful drink." Doctors in town prescribed it as medicine

Prohibition stopped Canale from making his treasure, but more than 150 years later, it's having a phoenix moment. Last May, his descendants—first cousins Chris Canale Jr. and Alex Canale—opened Old Dominick Distillery in Downtown Memphis, where they make and serve their family's famous whiskey and toddy. It's the city's only brand of Tennessee whiskey or bourbon, and a popular destination for tourists and locals.  

Making the whiskey was the easy part. The duo hired Alex Castle, who had worked at bourbon distilleries in Kentucky including Wild Turkey, to oversee the operation. The three products—a Tennessee whiskey, bourbon and wheat whiskey—are currently aging and will be ready to consume in three to four years. They've already released an Old Dominick vodka that can be found in almost every Memphis bar and restaurant.

Reviving the famous toddy proved to be more challenging. The Canales of the past kept everything: Displayed in the distillery are century-old ledgers, advertisements, bottles and photographs. "We know that you could buy a quart for $1.10," Canale says. "But we don't know the recipe. Great-great-granddaddy didn't leave it for us."

Luckily, they had one 168-year-old bottle of toddy that was still intact. Yes, the fruit had disintegrated, but the whiskey remained. So the duo opened it, tasted it and hired distillers to scientifically dissect it. Finally, the team came up with a recipe they believe mirrors the original. With one exception: "Of course, today's laws won't let us claim it for medical purposes," Canale jokes.  

"It's our interpretation of it," Castle explains. "We use a three-year-old bourbon that we steep different botanicals and spices into, like orange peel, lemon, clove, black spices and tea. So it's a flavored whiskey."

The distillery has an inviting bar and spacious rooftop where anyone can try the toddy. And patrons can know they're drinking something their ancestors consumed in a past time. "You can go to the bar and sit and toast to the original creator," Canale says. "Unlike other brands who are making up history, we actually have a relationship with the old white dude on the bottle."

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