Still-Crazy After All These Years

By / Photography By | April 30, 2019
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If you want to understand how busy the American whiskey business is, talk to a still manufacturer like Vendome Copper & Brass Works near Butchertown. In a day when same-day shipping is routine, a brand new distiller will wait eight to 12 months to receive a new still. That’s not because Vendome’s crews are slow, but because demand is at an all-time high, says Vendome vice president Rob Sherman.

On any given day, 300 to 400 projects are under management and manufacture by Vendome’s staff of about 100. Its metal fabrication shop workers average 18 hours of overtime each week when things are going well. When emergencies occur, they mean even more hours in the shop, at a customer’s business or in the seat of an airplane.

“This morning I got here at 3am just to respond to emails and voicemails,” says Sherman. “I have to get that out of the way to start ordering and designing materials and laying out jobs to send to our shop.”

Sherman’s voice bears no whining or busier-than-thou smugness; his grin proves he likes the pace of work at the family-owned business, which was founded around 1910.

“I’ve been here 33 years, so I’m used to it,” he says. “We don’t have much turnover here at all, but we’ve hired some who couldn’t handle the multitasking.”

Multitasking is putting it mildly. In addition to being the backbone of American distilling, Vendome builds equipment for chemical refineries, pharmaceutical companies, and kettles for big-name breweries and candy makers. Its stills are running throughout North America and the Caribbean, as far away as Ireland and even in Swaziland and Vietnam. On top of that, it maintains and repairs its own equipment.

“The nice thing about Vendome is our kind-of special size,” says Sherman, 45, who, along with sister Susannah Jaggers, and cousins Mike Sherman and Barbera Hubbuch, make up the family’s fourth generation ownership team. “There aren’t a lot of companies that compete directly with us, partly because we do so much custom metal work.”

“Gorgeous copper”

A still’s type and shape play a key role in the flavor and texture of the spirits it makes. Customizing a still to meet a customer’s distilling desires takes precise engineering and handcrafted metal. That often means no two stills are completely alike.

For much of Vendome’s history, spirits stills it made were of the continuous column variety: tall, cylindrical devices that distill rapidly, precisely, efficiently and without stopping for days. The component parts in these industry workhorses, though customized, differ mostly based on the still’s size.

But with America’s craft distilling boom has come demand for pot stills: squat, curvaceous devices more common in France, which produce spirits distinguished by lower proof and full-bodied mouthfeel. Nearly every component of a pot still is handcrafted, and pot distillation happens in batches: Fill it, slowly distill it, empty and clean it, and start over.

“I can remember when we’d get one pot still order a year, but now it’s about 50,” Sherman recalls. Forming a pot still requires patient, methodical hand-hammering of copper to form the curves in the still that are so crucial to creating unique flavors. “Doing pot stills has really trained our guys to become craftsmen. We do a lot more copper forming now.”

Louisville’s most easily viewed examples of Vendome pot still work is at Copper & Kings American Brandy Co. The distillery has three stills of near-identical curvature but vastly different sizes (50, 750 and 1,000 gallons).

“We’ve got some gorgeous copper,” says Brandon O’Daniel, master distiller at the brandy and gin maker in Butchertown. “Our helmets are very different from others’, and to get them to the shape we want, it takes a lot of hammering.”

The helmets to which O’Daniel refers are the bulbous units that fit atop the still’s pot. Inside the helmet vaporized alcohol is refluxed (condensed, re-vaporized and refined) to create the distillate’s unique flavors.

“We wanted our brandies to be bold and beautiful, and there’s no way to capture that fruit essence other than using a pot still,” O’Daniel says. “I can’t think of anyone in this country who could make ours like Vendome did.”

In a column still, the whiskey’s proof is increased by a second distillation in a “doubler.” When working with Vendome to create the stills for Michter’s American Whiskeys, Master Distiller Pamela Heilmann recalls her boss specifying the doubler be crafted to resemble a historic Michter’s pot still.

Michter’s President Joe Magliocco “had a picture of what he wanted our doubler to look like, and I thought, ‘Oh, boy. I’m OK with it looking pretty, but I want it to work!’” Heilmann recalls. To her defense, most doublers are utilitarian, not pretty and not shaped in a way that could change the distillate. Adding the curvature demanded by Magliocco could do just that. “But Rob Sherman kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, Pam, we’ ll get the calculations right.’ And they did.

“Vendome is the Lamborghini of still makers. What they make are beautiful works of art.”

Never say no. That’s customer service

“If there’s a problem in the distillery industry, you have to act fast,” says Sherman. “If a distillery has a bunch of fermenters full and it can’t distill because something’s broken, you can’t just wait and let all that [whiskey mash] go bad.”

Readiness for maintenance and repair, he adds, is more crucial than ever since super-busy distilleries don’t shut down over the summer. Before advanced cooling machinery made year-round fermentation possible, the heat of June, July and August made temperatures unsafe for mashing. Summer shutdown, therefore, made time for scheduled maintenance.

“Now they only shut down for two weeks, if that,” Sherman says. “And everybody used to do it at the same time, so that helped, too. Not anymore.”

Sherman says that means Vendome techs move out immediately when fixable problems occur. If a part has to be fabricated first, they’ll do that and come ASAP.

“I know we’re close by, but if I have a busted valve or need a new part, those guys will be here in 15 minutes,” says Copper & Kings’ O’Daniel. “We’ve asked them for crazy stuff, last-minute stuff, and they’ve never said no. You just don’t find that dedication very often.”

Heilmann recalls a time when her assistant distiller found an equipment problem on a Friday evening. Over the weekend, Vendome fabricated the part, delivered and installed it on Sunday.

“They’ll do anything you ask them,” says Heilmann. “They were like that when I was at Jim Beam 20 years ago. It doesn’t seem to matter that Michter’s is smaller.”

Sherman calls the will and desire to keep customers happy “a family trait. Fixing what’s wrong as fast as we can pays big dividends. It means our customers keep asking for us.”

Even as he’s trying to leave the factory after a long day.

“I was literally getting into my truck one evening and a car pulls up and the driver rolls down the window,” Sherman begins. “The guy said he’s interested in having a moonshine still built, and he wondered if I could tell him more about the company.”

Sherman took the man on a nickel tour of Vendome and watched him get excited about building a distillery. Along the way, he learned that the man was William “Bill” McDermott, CEO of Germany-based SAP and a director of Under Armour.

“We meet so many interesting people in this business,” Sherman says. That impromptu tour led to Vendome building McDermott a distillery. “That I took the time to show him the plant on a Friday night paid off. That’s how we do business.”

Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned food writer and is the author of “Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke.”

Vendome has supplied equipment to 294 companies in 11 countries.

Kentucky distilleries creating products using Vendome include:

• Alltech Dueling Barrels, Pikeville

• Angel’s Envy, Louisville

• Barton 1792 Distillery, Bardstown

• Boone County Distilling, Independence

• Booker Noe Plant, Boston

• Buffalo Trace Distillery, Frankfort

• Bulleit Distillery, Shelbyville

• Castle & Key Distillery, Frankfort

• Copper & Kings American Brandy, Louisville

• Early Times Distillery, Louisville

• Four Roses Distillery, Lawrenceburg

• Glenmore Distilleries, Owensboro

• Heaven Hill Distilleries, Louisville

• James Pepper Distillery, Lexington

• RH Resolute Distillery, Hickman

• Jeptha Creed Distillery, Shelbyville

• Jim Beam Brands, Clermont

• Kentucky Artisan Distillers, Crestwood

• Kentucky Peerless Distilling, Louisville

• Lux Row Distillers, Bardstown

• Maker’s Mark Distillery, Loretto

• Michter’s Distillery, Louisville

• Moonshine University, Louisville

• New Riff Distilling, Newport

• Old Forester Distillery, Louisville

• OZ Tyler Distillery, Owensboro

• Rabbit Hole Distilling, Louisville

• Six Mile Creek Distillery, Pleasureville

• Stitzel-Weller Distillery, Louisville

• Bardstown Bourbon Company, Bardstown

• The Old Pogue Distillery, Maysville

• Wild Turkey, Lawrenceburg

• Wilderness Trail Distillery, Danville

• Willett Distillery, Bardstown

• Woodford Reserve Distillery, Versailles

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