By Richard Thomas
When it comes to making the copper stills so vital to the world whiskey trade, two names stand out in the minds of whiskey fans. One is Forsyths, the Scottish copperworks that is literally a global institution. The other is more of an American classic, since its products often remain in the United States, and that is Vendome.
History in Copper and Brass
Almost as old as Forsyths, Vendome was founded by W. Elmore Sherman in 1904, when he bought the closing, Louisville branch of a Cincinnati-based coppersmith firm that he was working for at that time. Thus began a family-owned and -operated enterprise which has been a fixture of Louisville’s Butchertown district ever since.
Surprisingly, no one in the Sherman family knows how the company came to be named for the town in central France. “We have no idea,” said Mike Sherman, a Vice President at Vendome. “That is one of the great family mysteries.”
Perhaps another surprise is that Vendome is still with us today at all. Prohibition, the Depression, and the strictures of the Second World War combined to sink not just most of America’s liquor industry, but also much of its supporting industries as well. Despite the hostile climate, the Sherman family managed to muddle through.
“I know they packed up the family and installed a distillery up in Canada. For a while they were working with some other fellows making boilers. But they got through that and some slow times during World War Two, but there was some demand, making alcohol for the war effort,” said Sherman.
Nor have modern times always been as good for business. “Bourbon wasn’t as pretty 20 or 25 years ago as it is today. It was flat. At best it was flat. So we had to branch out and get into a lot of different industries over the years, and we still work in those industries.”
Surviving the tribulations of the whiskey trade in the mid-to-late 20th Century left Vendome in the position of being the only copperworks in the United States that specialized in custom still fabrication and repair. Even with the entry of new faces in the distillation equipment market, the Louisville copperworks remains America’s still-builder of choice, assuming, that is, you can wait for a place on their busy schedule.
“For right now, any craft distillery orders we take will be deliveries [that take about] ten months,” explained Sherman. “90% of what you see [on the scheduling board] are craft distillery orders.”
Even though the craft business crowds Vendome’s project board, it’s the work for the big outfits that truly stands out. “All the big distilleries are expanding,” said Sherman, “Jack Daniel’s is doing a huge expansion down there and we’re doing all their equipment for them. Wild Turkey just built a new distillery, Beam expanded their Boston plant a couple of years ago, [and] Maker’s Mark just announced an expansion and we just got the order for all their distillation equipment.”
Servicing Kentucky’s big distilleries is also a continuing, major business concern for Vendome. Motioning to his project board, Sherman said, “What you don’t see up there is from June to September, that’s when the big distilleries shut down. We have about 60 people working for us right now, and about 20 of them will be out doing maintenance [for them]. Replacing a condenser or whatever they are doing, those are the things we’ll be doing.”
Yet it’s the craft side that stands as the most interesting part of Vendome’s business these days. According to Sherman, “It’s a fun time, and you get to meet a lot of interesting people. We get a lot of calls here from people [who say] ‘We want to open a distillery. How do we start?'” The clamor from novices to get into the distilling trade has become so loud, in fact, that Vendome often finds itself referring potential clients to consultants or to the new Moonshine University to help them find their bearings prior to starting a still for them.
Unlike Forsyth’s, Vendome is primarily a United States-driven business, with little of its work going overseas. When we visited, there were only a couple of Canadian projects on their schedule to represent foreign orders. Alltech’s Carlow distillery in Ireland uses Vendome equipment, and they also provide equipment and services to the Caribbean rum industry. But generally speaking, Vendome’s overseas ventures are in the vein of periodic, not regular. “Probably 90% of our work is domestic, here in the United States,” said Sherman.
The Factory Floor
One can’t tour the Kentucky Bourbon Trail without coming across Vendome’s handiwork, and often a distillery’s copper equipment has a certain romance to it. Despite being a rambling and purely practical affair, Vendome shows that charming glint extends all the way back to the factory floor. It’s all metal, machine tools and welding, but you know what it’s all for, and an example or two of a nearly finished product are there to remind you in case you forget.
And those products are unique. Vendome might not be the only still-maker in America anymore, but they are the only one that specializes in custom fabrication. If you review the catalogs of the new still-makers, or even some of the European competition, what they offer are more or less standardized. Everything Vendome does is a custom job.
Naturally, the boom in business has resulted in Vendome’s own expansion. “We did buy a new building across the street,” says Sherman. “That allowed us to move all our inventory, shipping [and] receiving over there, giving us more fabrication space.”
Further expansion is under discussion in the Sherman family. Yet despite Vendome having a somewhat improvised floor plan that isn’t always ideal, relocating is not on the table. “I don’t think we’ll ever leave this area. We’ve been in this area, Butchertown, since we started. It’s our history and we don’t want to lose that.” Vendome, Louisville, and American whiskey seem set to remain intertwined for a long time to come.