There's a good chance that nearly every drop of distillate you've tasted has been produced with the help of this family-owned Kentucky business.
There are four major industrial manufacturers of distillation equipment in the world, and only one of them is located in the United States. If you've toured distilleries or breweries just about anywhere, you've likely noticed its name emblazoned on stills, fermenters, cookers and other pieces of custom-fabricated equipment: Manufactured by Vendome Copper & Brass Works Incorporated, Louisville, Kentucky.
Now in its fourth generation of family leadership, Vendome operates from an assemblage of offices, warehouses and manufacturing space in Louisville's historic Butchertown neighborhood and has installed stills in distilleries from Japan to Ireland, Swaziland to Switzerland and many places in between. Crews fabricate each piece of equipment by hand and to exacting specifications, and travel the world to service all of the equipment Vendome sells. In addition to distillation and brewing equipment, Vendome also manufactures specialized equipment for the pharmaceutical industry and other sectors, including food and dairy. Vendome's diversification and high level of customer service is a big part of the company's continued success.
The roots of Vendome reach back to the turn of the 20th century, when Elmore Sherman began working for Cincinnati-based Hoffman, Ahlers and Co. as a bookkeeper. The company manufactured all kinds of copper goods, and specialized in whiskey stills. The company opened a Louisville branch in 1879, in large part to position itself closer to the heart of the bourbon industry. After several leadership changes, Sherman was was put in charge of the Louisville office and eventually became Vice President.
Though the exact founding date is a bit murky, the Sherman family, who still owns and operates Vendome, believe that Elmore Sherman sold his first Vendome-branded still around 1908, and incorporated the business in 1912.
Like all other aspects of the spirits industry, Prohibition took a toll on Vendome. The company continued to service stills at the few distilleries that were able to obtain medicinal licenses during that time, and also sold stills in Mexico, Panama and Burma.
If you drive past Vendome today (public tours aren't currently available), you might notice a relic of this bygone era sitting incongruously on a side porch. It's the original doubler Vendome made for Mary Dowling when she relocated her Waterfill & Frazier distillery from Tyrone, Kentucky, to Juarez, Mexico, when Prohibition became the law of the land. The brand survived long past Prohibition and, although it's no longer being produced, is currently owned by Heaven Hill.
Vendome again faced hardship when the Ohio River flooded in 1937 and filled its buildings to the rafters, yet still they carried on. During World War II, Vendome turned its attention to making ethanol distillation equipment for the war effort, while continuing to manufacture and service whiskey stills.
In the market for a new Vendome still today? Expect to wait at least a year. Craftsmanship takes time, and Vendome fields about four to six orders each month for new distilleries, in addition to daily orders for maintenance and parts. The same 70 folks who build the stills travel to service them, and at any time as many as half of them are out in the field installing and servicing equipment. And, with all the craft distilleries popping up throughout the state and around the country, business shows no sign of slowing any time soon.
Photography courtesy of Vendome Copper & Brass Works