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The Louisville Company That Keeps The Bourbon Flowing

at Vendome Copper and Brass Works, in Louisville, Ky., on Tuesday, July 23, 2014. Photo by Eleanor Hasken
Eleanor Hasken
at Vendome Copper and Brass Works, in Louisville, Ky., on Tuesday, July 23, 2014. Photo by Eleanor Hasken

As bourbon’s popularity has grown in recent years, so to have the names we associate with it: Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Four Roses.But there’s one name that often goes largely unnoticed by bourbon drinkers: Vendome.For generations, the Butchertown company has made the copper distilling equipment many big-name American distilleries use to make bourbon. On Franklin Street, across the street from Louisville's skate park and amid sounds of construction for the new downtown bridge, Mike Sherman shows me an old picture of a building in a pool of water.  “This is our shop right here," says Sherman, who is among the fourth generation of Shermans  to own Vendome since 1904. "You can see the name on there: Vendome Copper and Brass Works Coppersmiths and that is Jan. 27, 1937.”Over the last century, Vendome has survived the Great Flood of 1937 and Prohibition.“While over the years there have been other coppersmith companies, we’re really the only one in this area. Cincinnati and all those, they’ve all closed down except for us and there’s really no one else in the United States that does the copper equipment like we do," Sherman says.Out of five buildings on Franklin Street, employees will take large imported copper sheets  and grind, pound, and smooth to produce the copper pot stills that will be used to produce  the alcohol that will eventually be put into barrels and aged to become bourbon.Sherman walks through the factory buildings, where  pieces of pot stills and other equipment are in small, neat piles labeled in pen.The names of distilleries that have placed the orders are on the pieces—Michter's, Jim Beam, Four Roses.Vendome is making the equipment for the new distilleries that are being housed in downtown Louisville — Angel's Envy, Michter's, Evan Williams. But most big name brands, which Sherman rattles off, use Vendome’s equipment to make bourbon.“Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Four Roses, Buffalo Trace, Early Times, Brown-Forman," he says.But the company has also benefited from the recent increase in craft distillers.

A few years ago, Vendome was making a couple dozen stills a year, Sherman says. This year, that number will be between 50 to 60 stills, he says.  Depending on the size, stills cost between $15,000 to $500,000.   If you want a "mirror" finish—when the copper is polished and shiny, the ones you’re likely to see on a distillery tour—it'll add around 15 percent to the price, he says.Each still takes about four months to make,  but"right now we’re about 10 to 12 months out just because of our backlog," Sherman says.If the bourbon market remains strong, Vendome’s copper work could maintain a booming business long into the future. Sherman says the larger pot stills used by most distilleries usually wear out or need replacement parts within 15 to 20 years.

The company has increased its union staff from around 45 to 60 during the boom of the last three years, and despite an increase in business and space, Vendome isn't planning on leaving Butchertown anytime soon.“There are times when I think we should be in a big industrial area where we can just roll the trucks in and roll the trucks out," says Barbara Hubbuch, Mike’s sister. She also works at Vendome.“We have built equipment over the years that was too tall for the ceiling. We’ve built equipment too big to get out of the building. We had LG&E come and move the utility poles so we could get the trucks in and out to move it."Vendome has come a long way since Elmore Sherman started the business in 1904. Before growing on Franklin Street, the company had prior locations on Shelby and Main streets since opening in 1904.  The name, however, is a mystery.“We really don’t know what my great grandfather named Vendome after," Sherman says. "We know it’s French. We know there is a Vendome square. We know there’s a Vendome tower all over in Paris. But we don’t know if he had visited over there or what. That’s kind of one of the things that never got passed down from generation to generation, unfortunately.”