Vendome. The copper magic workers of North America.
Vendome. After my visit to the new Angel’s Envy distillery that is right down the block, I decided to at least get a picture of the Vendome building. As I was taking pictures an employee happened to open the door to the production floor and was clearly front and center of my photo. Feeling slightly creepy, I jokingly asked if he wanted to be on Instagram. He then said follow me and led me to the main office. I was then introduced to Mike Sherman, the VP of Vendome and we scheduled a walk through of the whole facility a few days later. I really need to thank Kraig of Vendome for helping me out that day!
Many of you have heard the names “Forsyth” and “Vendome”. Depending on what country you are in really determines your odds of which name you will see on the copper stills. Both are the experts in custom still manufacturing and basically hold monopolies in their respected countries. Like most businesses, success is built on quality. They are not only expert manufacturers, engineers and coppersmiths, but they understand the industry as a whole. Mike explained to me many times that customers not only come to them with still designs and requests, but questions about how to start a distillery in general. The Vendome team has been in the industry so long that they can either help guide the customer or point them to the right person. For anyone who has started a company, I can imagine this kind of industry contact is huge.
Vendome has been in downtown Louisville since 1904. Since then they have continued to expand and purchase the land and buildings around them. Although they are a significant supplier to the whiskey industry, they were sheltered during prohibition. Stability was found in other business opportunities such as oil and gasoline distillation. As expected, business has been booming over the past 5 or 6 years with large producers expanding and craft distilleries opening. Their average wait time for a new distillation set-up is about 10-12 months depending on the complexity. As one can imagine, custom welding and soldering is a very rare skill and talent. You can purchase catalog one-size-fits-all stills, but there are no service or quality guarantees afterwards.
Vendome purchases large sheets of copper from Germany because of the significant projects that they take on. In the United States it is very difficult to get copper sheets over 36” wide and at least a quarter inch thick. You quickly see that they are not only working with copper, but all kinds of metal. They build the whole system including the stills, fermentation vessels and condensers. There were a few unique designs that I saw while I was there. You can see in the picture to the right the way this pot still is heated via a steam jacket. It is much easier to clean and maintain than a coil system, but is of course aesthetically different. As you walk through the facility you find multiple fabrication areas, but the one I found the most interesting is the “heat and beat” area where you see how malleable the copper really is. They literally hit, shape and form the copper sheets to the exact specs of the client by hand. It is pretty insane to think the whole copper pot still starts from flat sheets. Once all the shaping, and welding is complete they assemble the unit and begin testing it. They test for leaks by running hydro tests.
As Mike and I walked around the final areas of production he began to speak about the increase in not only orders, but size requirements. Just about 5 years ago they received many orders for 250 and 500 gallon pot stills for craft distilleries. They now they are getting mostly 750 and 1,000 gallon requests. The column stills are also going up in size, sometimes reaching over 18 inches in diameter. While I was there they were finishing up the new Heaven Hill column still. It literally looked like a submarine and I couldn’t tell what it was at first. Look at the picture to the left and see how small the employee looks while working on the finishing touches.
The next day they installed that new column into Heaven Hill’s facility in downtown Louisville by crane. This unit was almost 50 feet tall! As you can probably assume, between new orders and maintenance, the Vendome team is very busy. They currently have 19 people working in the office and 75 working in production. They are continuing to work on efficiency and lead-times. Either way, this company has a well-deserved reputation in the industry and I can’t thank Mike enough for his time earlier this month. Not only did he personally walk me through the facility, but he also put me in touch with the owners of the Wilderness Trail Distillery. Wait until you see the pictures and write up about this distillery. They have one of the most unique spirit safes that Vendome has ever made. Quite an engineering feat! That story is to come. Thank you to the Vendome team for their time and I hope to be back soon!