The noise sounds like a distant echo when you’re standing outside the nondescript building on an otherwise silent street, minutes from downtown Louisville. But the instant you open the shop door to the Vendome Copper & Brass Works, an industrial orchestra—clatter, clank, hiss, bang!—drowns out any attempt at conversation. That can be a nuisance when Mike Sherman, one of Vendome’s fourth-generation owners and its vice president, is showing you around and explaining the intricate technicalities of welding, soldering, plasma-cutting, and precision turning.
There are probably a dozen projects underway in the vast shop on this particular morning. There’s distillery equipment in various stages of being: hulking columns with gaping holes where sight ports will go, lying sideways like Doric columns of an ancient Greek building felled by an earthquake; a fermenting tank flush against the floor, its legs just a pile of copper poles beside it; shiny stacks of perforated trays. Men are putting finishing touches on a now-horizontal still for Kings County distillery in Brooklyn. Scattered around them are flanges, metal rings in sizes ranging from CDs to LPs; the name of a distillery somewhere in the U.S. is scribbled on each one. In the back, a young sheet metal worker is firing a skinny blowtorch to preheat copper, preparing to hand-form it into a vapor stack, which will later be welded to the top of a doubler. In a far corner, Don Evans, who’s worked here since 1999, is leveling up a nozzle on the shell of a condenser.
A few somber-looking guys are gathered around a massive horizontal tube. Inside it, Rob Ross gradually shimmies on his hip through the enclosed space, narrower than a manhole. He can’t hear the Van Halen tune playing on the radio 100 feet away as he welds a layer of copper onto the interior on this carbon steel pipe. “It’s peaceful in there,” he’ll tell me later. “It’s easy to get frustrated and it’s claustrophobic, so you gotta relax.” This heavy-walled structure is being customized for a chemical company; the lining is necessary because copper is more corrosion-resistant than carbon steel.
Vendome, like many fabricators in the United States, employs highly-specialized union tradesmen to make manufacturing equipment. Unlike many fabricators in the U.S., Vendome’s tradesmen make customized equipment primarily for a highly-specialized industry: distilling. That’s been the case since Sherman’s great-grandfather founded the company in 1904. Makes sense then that Vendome is a name as deeply entrenched in the annals of American whiskey as Beam, Dickel, and Van Winkle. Sure, times have changed since the days when Theodore Roosevelt ran this great nation, but for the most part distilling has not. And as long as people are drinking, Sherman’s cell phone, a constant companion, will continue to ring off the hook.
The Personal Touch
I’m in a quiet warehouse standing next to a six-foot stack of vast, thin wood crates, each containing copper sheets. The mass takes up floor space the size of an SUV. The sheets vary in thickness. “Everything starts as a flat sheet in the metal world, unless it’s something that’s forged or cast,” said Rob Sherman, a vice president and project manager responsible for ensuring each job gets finished and shipped on schedule, and Mike’s cousin. (He also does sales.) But when the metal workers start shaping this raw material, what seems like the beginning of a process is actually the end result of what could amount to months of work.
“In the old days, when we’d get a $1 million job, a big company would send its prints, we’d make changes, we’re done in a day,” explained Rob, a trained graphic designer. “We spend more time with a craft distillery. We’ll work with them to figure out how many barrels they want to make per day, then we can figure out how many mashes they’d have to do per day, and from there you can figure out the size of the cooker and the size of the still. They give us drafts, we make changes. It takes up to three months to design. They could need 20 pieces of equipment—cookers, fermenters, bottling tanks, gauging tanks, stills. We’re doing 60 drawings for the same money as a big company’s job. The minute the print is done, we’re on the floor working.”
But lest you think it’s only the dimensions that are customized, it’s what’s on the surface that matters. “You know we’re gonna lose money when I say, ‘You know what’d be really cool?” Mike shouts over the whirring din. “If not for the craft boom, you’d never look at this as art. In the old days, they’d send us a blueprint for equipment and we’d ship it. Today we tell customers: ‘Be creative. How can you make yourself stand out? Customize it enough that it’s yours.’ I like the jobs where the customer is involved. Those are the fun ones.” For instance, there’s the 250-gallon copper and stainless steel batch-still system for Honey House distillery in Colorado. It looks like a beehive, down to the honeycomb pattern polished on. Then there are the high wine and low wine tanks for Maker’s Mark, which look like giant antique showpieces.
But there’s a lot of administrative work that needs to be squared away before a design is finalized. A distillery owner has to sort out official and legal matters—safety inspections, building permits, Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau documents, and tax paperwork. The Shermans have a roster of consultants on call when a client needs hand-holding. That isn’t necessarily the case with other fabricators around the world. They’re capable of making equipment, but their scope of work doesn’t extend beyond their workshops. Plus, they don’t necessarily have a grasp on the process and issues that are part of the big picture. People who’ve worked with distillers for over a century do.
“What people don’t understand is safety. We engineer everything. Make sure it can withstand temperature, pressure,” said Rob, who started at Vendome in 1986 sweeping floors. “Then we install it. And we stand behind everything. We’ll go out and fix it if something breaks.”
The Sweet Science
In these times of smartphones, GPS, and self-driving cars, you might think it’s tough to be wowed by a centuries-old vocation. But watch the men of Vendome make metal yield to their command and you’re astonished. In fact, as I observe them finesse copper and steel, I’m reminded of what it means to be human. It doesn’t take long to see that welding and soldering immense equipment that weighs more than a rhinoceros, yet is nonetheless delicate, takes the temperament of an artist. Despite the hyper-focus required and the toll it takes on one’s body, the men here make it look easy.
J.P. Young, a 31 year old former Army soldier, didn’t come to work one day at the end of last year because his shoulder needed a rest. He’d been swinging away on a doubler head for Michter’s new distillery in Shively, forming it by beating it out with a rawhide hammer for hours. The work he’s done since he started here six years ago has made his right arm bigger than his left. Over that time, he’s figured out tricks to make metal more submissive. It’s a matter of chemistry.
“Some people keep a flame to the copper while they’re hitting it so it stays sizzling at 900 to 1100 degrees. Heat softens metal, which can only harden once you change it on a molecular level. Hitting it, rolling it, forming it are all means of molecular manipulation,” he explains, demonstrating how he heats a section of metal with a rosebud, a narrow torch, so it’s red-hot. He bashes on it, forming it against a mold, laying off the heat gradually, and moving to the next section once it’s smooth. He’s careful not to apply heat the whole time, as that would risk the copper reaching its melting point. If that sounds tricky, it’s because it is. It’s byzantine enough, in fact, that computers aren’t much help. Young will work from computer-generated patterns, but only as a starting point.
“I gotta come up with my own patterns and my own dimensions and everything, because when you’re shrinking and stretching metal, sometimes you wanna hit it hard, sometimes you just wanna finesse it,” he says thoughtfully, pantomiming his words. “Between the angle you hit it and the different heat applications you put on it, there’s gonna be so many variations that a computer can’t spit out a bunch of numbers and dimensions.”
Sean Stevens is a union sheet metal worker. “I’ve been doing sheet metal since 1978. Most guys around here—you have to call them artists. You start with a sheet and use a hammer and wooden forms and turn it into something useful. I’m always attempting to make what I do faster, easier, better. I love the repetitiveness of it, but there’s still an artistic part to it, you have to be crafty.”
A Family Story; An American Industry’s History
“Yeah, I guess I’m still president by title. To tell you the truth, none of them expressed interest in taking over the title,” says Tom Sherman, referring to son Mike and daughter Barbara Hubbuch, who oversees the company’s HR department and safety training; his nephew Rob; and his niece Susannah, who runs IT for Vendome. “I try to stay out of the way as much as possible.”
Tom, who went to work for his father, Elmore Jr., in the early 1960s, has a reputation as an exhaustive storyteller with an office full of memorabilia and antiques that could be said to chronicle America’s distilling history. But the stuff is just props for Sherman’s yarns.
“That’s some history up there. That’s gotta be from before Prohibition because it’s got our Main Street address,” he says, pointing to a framed letterhead tax receipt. Next to that is a framed tax stamp dated 1910 for a still they built. There’s a circa-1934 drawing of a still they made for a company in Trinidad. He shares an oversize black and white portrait on poster board: a dapper gent in a suit and fedora standing alongside twelve men in work clothes—actually, many of them boys—crouching in front of a hulking horizontal column. Their scruffy appearance and sweet expressions—some dignified, some impish—call to mind “Lunch Atop a Skyskraper,” that iconic 1932 photograph of construction workers parked on a crossbeam chowing on sandwiches high above the Manhattan cityscape. Tom explains that the lads in the photo, shot New Year’s Eve 1935, are Vendome’s workers; the dapper gent is Elmore Sherman Sr., Tom’s grandfather who started the company.
Elmore Sr. kept his Louisville plant running through Prohibition. He fabricated boilers and equipment for distilleries that produced ‘medicinal’ whiskey. He also spent time in Canada fabricating and installing equipment for Canadian distilleries. Then, once the 21st Amendment passed, long-forsaken distilleries needed restoration and new distilleries needed to be constructed. Things were booming so that Vendome was competing with two other fabricators in Louisville alone. By the 1960s, there were more than 40 operating distilleries in Kentucky and 5 in Nashville, Tom recalls. The company could stay busy just with its maintenance and repair jobs, he said. But no boom springs eternal.
While other copper fabricators fell by the wayside—five in Baltimore, two in Philly—Vendome diversified. As the distilling industry slowed in the 1970s, Vendome got into the confection business. Also around that time, they started working with brewers like Anheuser-Busch and Miller, which used copper kettles in their giant plants. The years of consolidation meant immediate inroads with new brands, particularly overseas, like in the Caribbean. And more new equipment meant more long-term upkeep work. He talks of how the Straub brewery in Pennsylvania used to shut for a month every fall so Vendome could send guys to replace worn-out sections of the brewery’s kettle.
“By the 80s I saw handwriting on the wall and got more involved out of the region,” he said, explaining that they started working with huge Seagram plants in Baltimore. Around that time, industry in U.S. started shifting. Vendome also started working with grain alcohol plants. Then came the fuel alcohol boom of the late 70s. Vendome heeded its calls, too.
An Unpredictable Industry, A Guaranteed Challenge
As the distilling industry continues to expand and evolve, so do the demands on Vendome, which already fabricates tens of thousands of pounds of copper annually. On average, the time from first meeting to delivery is up to a year, including the wait time. A project can take up to 6,000 man hours, and this is not a business of shortcuts. That can be a challenge for a union company with 65 workers in the shop, especially when you consider how long it takes to become a union welder.
“It’s hard to find people to do the work. Our deliveries wouldn’t be as long as they are right now if we could find more people. You just can’t find the people with the skills,” Tom says. “I blame our education system in a way, in that they push everybody to go to college. There are a lot of guys with a lot of good ability who’d do a lot better in the trades and so forth.” And they’re not just swamped keeping up with orders in the shop. Many big facilities shut down between June and October—sometimes for months—for repairs and upkeep. It’s not uncommon for Vendome to have 24 to 30 guys in the field working on various projects during the summer.
One thing that keeps Mike on edge is the incoming flow of raw materials. “My worst nightmare is that the copper supply would dry up,” he says. “We order four times a year to keep copper coming in. Copper equipment wears out, so we can’t just count on new incoming orders to calculate the stock we’ll need.”
And then there’s the matter of costs. In early February of this year, sheets of copper cost $4.50 per pound. Vendome can end up ordering nearly 3,000 pounds of copper at a time. That market price changes based on the price of raw copper, which was around $2.20 per pound at the time. Since copper is a traded commodity, prices are volatile. Last winter, prices were the lowest they’ve been in ten years. Blame it on China. No, really. Rob explained that the slowdown of China’s building boom is driving prices down. Also, copper has a long lead time. They have to order from the mill based on what they think customers will need. A lot of money can get tied up in inventory very quickly.
But all in all, their scale isn’t much when you consider other metal companies that make massive industrial equipment. “We’re a small fabricator,” Rob says. “We just play here.”