The Story of Memphis’ Old Dominick Distillery

The story of Memphis’ Old Dominick Distillery begins, like most great adventures, with a dream and a voyage. The birthplace of this dream was the Ligurian coast of Italy in the middle of the 19th century, and the dreamer was Domenico Canale, a boy of modest background from an undistinguished hamlet called San Pietro di Reveneto.

Sandwiched between picturesque mountains and the austere, azure beauty of the Mediterranean, it is a part of the world that has long called out to dreamers. Known today as the Italian Riviera, the sun-baked stretch of fishing villages has been cherished by artists and explorers for centuries. From nearby Genoa, Marco Polo recounted his journey to a strange new world to the east, and ChristopherColumbus envisioned one he would take — to the same destination, he thought — to the west. From the colorful harbor of Portofino across the bay from San Pietro di Reveneto, thousands of painting masters and even Walt Disney have drawn inspiration. And a few miles west at Porto Verne, just two decades before Domenico’s birth in 1843, the words and exploits of Lord Byron, who famously once swam across the the Gulf of La Spezia there, and his friend Percy Shelley, who famously drowned in it, would inspire a new name for the body of water, the Gulf of Poets.

Against such a backdrop, it is easy to imagine a boy from even origins as humble as Domenico’s dreaming large about a new world where anyone could rise as far as their talents as could take them. And in the mid-19th century such dreams pointed to one place, America.

As idyllic as Liguria could be, it was a good time to leave. The period from 1848 to 1861 was one of remarkable upheaval for Italy, which at the time was little more than collection of city-states. Over this span a series of conflicts were fought — including no fewer than three wars of independence — that would ultimately lead to the unification of Italy under one kingdom in 1861. The Kingdom of Piedmont to the north of Liguria was a major hub of revolutionary activity, inspiring many young men from the area who wished to be no part of the conflict to flee to America. That is what Domenico’s uncle, Abraham Vaccaro, did in 1851. And eight years later, Domenico, just 16-years-old set off to follow him.

After a two month voyage Domenico landed in New Orleans and immediately boarded another boat to travel up the Mississippi to Memphis. There he was met by his uncle who had established a wholesale liquor and wine business where Domencio would work.

The city that Domenico now called home was quite different from the one from which he had come. His hometown predated the glory of the Roman empire, but his new home was barely 40 years old when he arrived in 1859. For much of that early history it more closely resembled a wild west town than a Southern trade hub. It was dirty and ramshackle and crime and vice were notoriously rampant.

By the time Domenico arrived, however, Memphis was on the tail end of its first boom. Between 1840 and 1860 the city experienced 1,200 percent growth fueled mainly by the cotton trade. As a result of this new prosperity, a new cultured elite had begun to take hold, living in grand mansions in places like Victorian Village. And in their wake had started to develop institutions like theaters, concert halls, and civic organizations.

Memphis in those days was a surprisingly cosmopolitan place. By 1860 it was estimated that a third of the population of 22,693 was foreign born. The Irish, most of whom had arrived after the potato famine that had begun in 1845, made up the bulk of the immigrant population followed by the Germans, who were likewise escaping strife at home. The year before Domenico arrived, the city’s Jewish population had established its first synagogue.

But there were very few Italians in Memphis in 1860. Indeed in all of North America there estimated to be just around 25,000. The vast bulk of Italian immigration to the United States would come between 1880 and 1900, driven by economic hardships in Southern Italy. Many of the families to come across in that wave would go on to play large roles in the business and cultural life of the city, but it would be up to newcomers like Domencio to trail the path for them.

Domenico had been working for his uncle for only a few years when he branched out and opened his own roving fruit cart. Because of Italy’s agricultural and culinary reputation, grocer was a natural profession for Italian immigrants. And in the 19th century selling food stuffs also meant selling wine and liquor. From the start Domenico was selling jugs of wine and whiskey from his cart, most likely bottling product from his uncle’s business.

Domenico's cart advertising Old Dominick Whiskey

Domenico’s cart advertising Old Dominick Whiskey

Domenico’s grocer business continued to grow during the Civil War. While his uncle and brother, Peter, served in the Confederate army, Domenico stayed behind and arguably served a more important role. Memphis fell quickly and relatively quietly to the Union in 1862, and the city soon resumed its importance as a hub of trade both sanctioned and illicit. Domenico himself braved enemy lines frequently to bring much needed groceries to the city.

After the war, both Domencio and Memphis resumed their rise in prosperity. The city doubled its population between 1860 and 1870. In this booming peace-time economy, Domenic and Peter started Canale & Bro., a wholesale grocery, confectionary, and liquor supplier. And In 1866, the new company rolled out its own brand of bourbon whiskey. Old Dominick.

In just seven years, Domenico had watched his adopted hometown change tremendously. The roughhewn river town was becoming more prosperous, more sophisticated. Domenico, likewise had matured. From his humble beginnings, he had recast himself as a successful, urbane, and sophisticated businessman known for his tastes in drink, food, cigars, and clothes. In 1869 he married the cultured and refined Catherine Solari, sister of Mary Solari, the first woman admitted to Florence, Italy’s the Accademia di Belle Arti and a major figure in Memphis cultural and philanthropic circles.

Domenico's carriage advertising Old Dominick Whiskey

Domenico’s carriage advertising Old Dominick Whiskey

As one of its leading suppliers of drink, Domenico, felt Memphis deserved its own drink to reflect its and his own new, more worldly outlook. He poured that vision into Old Dominick. Working closely with Milton, Kentucky’s Richwood Distillery, founded by a family with a rich heritage in whiskey making, Domenico crafted a beverage to his liking — smooth, robust, complex. Inspired perhaps by famed distiller James Crow’s Old Crow, one of the most popular and respected bourbon brands of the mid-19th century, Domenico turned to another winged creature for his label, his proud-looking namesake the Dominique chicken or Dominicker.

Pre-Prohibition Main Street, Memphis. Old Dominick Whiskey painted ad on Memphis building.

Pre-Prohibition Main Street, Memphis. Old Dominick Whiskey painted ad on Memphis building.

Domenico’s vision and hard work paid off. In a short amount of time Old Dominick became the drink of choice in the fast growing city and its environs. Old Dominick was sold from grocery carts and in stores and advertised in newspapers and prominently on the sides of downtown office buildings. Besides its signature line of bourbons (aged five, seven, 12, and 15 “summers”), the Old Dominick brand adorned a rye whiskey and its signature Dominick Toddy, a fruit and spice-infused whiskey “recommended by doctors” and “used by the best families all over the United States.”

Despite the series of near calamitous yellow fever epidemics that decimated Memphis in the 1870s, Domenico, the Canale family, Old Dominick, and the D. Canale Company, as it came to be known after Peter left the business, all thrived into the 20th century. The company branched out into the growing beer market. Its base of operations at the crossroads of American shipping made D. Canale one of the largest food and liquor suppliers in the country.

In 1917 the city’s leaders, including Piggly Wiggly founder Clarence Saunders, gathered to celebrate Domenico’s 74th birthday. A picture from the celebration shows a man content in life, the father of eight healthy children, a growing brood of grandchildren, and prospering business empire. A dozen years earlier the book Notable Men of Tennessee had profiled him, saying: “Mr. Canale is what is rightly termed a self-made man and has won his position in the social and commercial life of Memphis by his industry, his native ability, and the exercise of correct business principles.”

Not even Tennessee’s attempt to enact alcohol prohibition in 1909, a measure that went largely ignored in Memphis for years as evidenced by the glasses of wine on the table and inventories showing large supplies of whiskey in the D. Canale stores, could dampen his spirit. Of course, in the coming years the prohibition fever would overtake the entire country, and D. Canale would be forced to take a new direction in a whiskey-less world. But Domencio Canale would not have have to see the cap placed on his beloved namesake Old Dominick. He died in his Midtown mansion on January 12, 1919, an immigrant whose Italian vision had become the American dream and whose love of family and friends and community are embodied in the spirit that bears his name.

By Mark Jordan, April 7 2017

 

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