Jan 9, 2013 9:35 PM
LOUISVILLE. (AP) - Drinkers of Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whiskey cite cities like Bardstown, Ky., and Lynchburg, Tenn. as the birthplace of their drink. But tracing the line back a bit further often takes them to Louisville's Butchertown neighborhood.
For 108 years, Vendome Copper and Brass Works on East Franklin Street has been making the copper stills used at distilleries big and small and around the world.
The company, now in its fourth generation of ownership by the Sherman family, makes its gleaming copper stills and related copper and stainless steel equipment with about 70 employees - 55 of them shaping, cutting and joining metal into fixtures as small as 100-gallon pots and as large as stills that hold more than 1,000 gallons of bubbling corn mash.
Whatever the shape or size or the direction of the pipes and pressure gauges, they're all stamped with a cursive "Vendome Copper & Brass Works Incorporated, Louisville, Ky."
Six members of the Sherman family own the business - two from the third generation and four from the fourth.
"If they were interested in doing it, we made room for them," said Tom Sherman, a grandson of the company's founder Elmore Sherman. As for a fifth generation, the Shermans said it's too soon to plan since the oldest is in high school.
When the bourbon business was smaller, Vendome was able to claim that it supplied stills, condensers, fermenting tanks and other equipment to every distiller in Kentucky. But the advent of small craft distilleries popping up around the state has made it harder to make the claim.
Today, its main competitor is Stuttgart, Germany-based Carl Artisan Distilleries and Brewing Systems.
But Eric Gregory, president of the Kentucky Distillers' Association, which operates the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, said Vendome is "an integral part of our signature industry."
"I've toured distilleries that have been abandoned for decades that still have the equipment in it," he said, "and it all has that beautiful Vendome plaque."
Vendome, originally located on Main Street and a few blocks from the Ohio River, survived Prohibition by supplying Brown-Forman's medicinal and fuel alcohol business, in addition to building a Canadian liquor still.
In World War II, distillers were ordered to make alcohol used in production of neoprene.
By 1937 the factory had moved to Shelby Street where floodwaters reached the rafters.
Vendome also makes distilling equipment for rum and vodka, in addition to equipment for breweries, chemical plants and food companies like candy makers.
But it's most famous for its distillery industry work, and bourbon's recent surging popularity around the world has driven five years of double-digit growth. Though business has leveled off since 2008, the plant is near its capacity and family members say they're comfortable with that size.
Aside from building the equipment, repairs are also an important part of the business with service calls needed to distilleries and breweries at a moment's notice. The lifetime for a still varies on its usage and maintenance, but generally is between 10 and 20 years, said Mike Sherman, one of the fourth generation owners.
"Any time a plant is down ... it costs money, just sitting there not running," said Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris. "So it is very important to have a partner like Vendome who is going to make those calls to get the plant back up and running as quick as possible."
Vendome was founded by Elmore Sherman, son of a blacksmith and a bookkeeper for the Louisville division of Cincinnati's Hoffman Ahlers & Co. coppersmiths. The company closed the Louisville division, with Sherman taking over the division's assets and starting Vendome around 1904.
The origin of the name, which also appears in France and sometimes in connection with the Bourbon name, is a family mystery.
The transfer from one generation to the next has seemed to happen by chance more than design, family members said.
The first generation shifted to the second generation suddenly in the mid-1950s, third-generation owner Tom Sherman said, when his grandmother was diagnosed with heart problems.
"When she came from the doctor's, my grandfather (Elmore) walked in (and) he told dad (Elmore Jr.) and my Uncle Ed. He says, 'I'm outta here. I'm going home to take care of her. You all do what you want with it. Close it up. Run it. Keep it going. Whatever you all want to do. It's yours."
Those two led the company until handing it off to the third generation, Tom and his brother Dick Sherman, in 1974.
"We all started here sweeping the floors," said Dick Sherman's son, Rob Sherman, "so if you survived that, then you stayed."
As for a fifth generation, the Shermans said it's too soon to plan since the oldest of those are in high school.
Brown-Forman's Morris, who also is the company's spirits historian, said the oldest known relationship between the two companies was Vendome working with Owsley Brown to get Brown-Forman back in the consumer liquor business the minute Prohibition ended.
The company also built a best-guess representation of the 25-gallon, open-fire still that George Washington would have had at Mount Vernon. Another project was a top like Washington's for the bottom half of an 1807 Lexington-made pot still that was dug up at the Woodford Reserve distillery site.
In honor of the 200th anniversary of distilling at the site, Brown-Forman had Vendome make the top for the still that remains on display.
"That's the kind of stuff they can do," Morris said. "People (touring Woodford) are fascinated by it, because most people don't have a sense of scale of what a distillery in the past was like."
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