Vendome Copper & Brass Works: A Century of Custom Handmade Stills
Copper (Cu) is element number 29 on the Periodic Table of Elements. Copper is a mineral and an element essential to our everyday lives. It’s a major industrial metal because of its high ductility, malleability, thermal and electrical conductivity and resistance to corrosion. It’s been an essential material to man since pre-historic times. Copper and its many alloys have played an important role in many civilizations, from the ancient Egyptians, Romans to modern day cultures around the world.
Today, hand crafted copper stills play an integral part in the distilled and craft spirits boom. One of the company’s enjoying that boom is Vendome Copper & Brass Works. Vendome is a family owned business founded by Elmore Sherman at the beginning of the 20th century and is still run by the fourth generation of Sherman’s.
Is Tourism Important for Your Distillery? Let’s Get Creative!
Handmade custom designed honey beehive shaped copper and stainless steel still. Photo courtesy of Honey House Distillery.
The company was started in the early 1900’s by W. Elmore Sherman, Sr. Elmore got his start in the distillery business in 1901 when he was hired as a book keeper in the Louisville branch of the Cincinnati based Hoffman, Ahlers & Co. copper company. In January 1910 George Ahlers died, and soon after, Sherman must have decided to start his own company, taking some of the Hoffman, Ahlers customers with him. The first Vendome order book, still in the company’s possession, contains about 15 orders from the years 1900 to 1908, and then 20 for 1909 and 47 for 1910. On April 1, 1912 incorporation papers for Vendome Copper & Brass Works, Inc. were officially filed at the county courthouse.
Where Did the Name Vendome Come From?
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The exact origin of the Vendome name is a mystery. There’s no written record that tells the exact story. There are two concepts that may be the source of the name. One says that it came from the Vendôme Column in Paris, France that was erected by Napoleon I to commemorate the battle of Austerlitz. The other says that it came from the Count or Duke of Vendôme in France. The first instance of a Duke tied to the name came in 1372 to a junior brand of the House of Bourbon.
Just like every distillery needs a good back story, I’m going with theory No.2 and House of Bourbon.
Who knew in the early 1900’s that this small company would one day be one of the best known brands in the world for making and servicing distillery equipment for the likes of Maker’s Mark, Blanton’s, Heaven Hill and many, many more startup craft distilleries around the world.
Why Are Stills Made of Copper?
According to Rob Sherman, Vice President and 4th generation craftsman, the distillery equipment business including building and servicing pot stills, columns, cookers, fermenters, condensers, coolers, whiskey tanks, and bottling tanks accounts for about 70% of their business. The rest of their business is making and servicing equipment the brewing, pharmaceutical, dairy, chemical, food and confectionery industries.
I recently had an opportunity to visit with Rob Sherman at the company’s headquarters in Louisville, KY to learn more about Vendome Copper & Brass Works.
Q: Rob, how long have you been at Vendome?
A: I’ll be at Vendome 30 years next year. I started here in 1987, the same year I started college.
Q: What’s the most common size pot still you make today?
A: A 500 gallon pot still.
Q: What’s the most common column still you make today?
A: 24″ is the most popular size beer still with 19 plates. It will produce about 70 barrels a day.
Q: What’s the biggest copper pot still you ever made?
A: A 10,000 gallon pot still.
Q: What’s the biggest column still you ever made?
A: It was a 13′ 6″ diameter column that was 108′ tall for an ethanol plant.
Q: What percent of the stills that you make are copper vs. stainless steel?
A: It’s about 50/50 right now. Stainless steel materials are about 20% of copper cost.
Q: What’s one of the most interesting stills Vendome has ever made?
A: We did a really creative still for Honey House Distillery in Durango, CO. They wanted a still that would create a great customer experience for tourism. We created a one of a kind still in the shape of a beehive. Photo above courtesy of Honey House Distillery.
Q: What’s the most labor intensive part of what you make?
A: It’s working on the pot stills. It requires lots of hammering and polishing.
“When making a pot still, you have to heat up the metal to 800 – 900 degrees and hammer on it all day. It makes for a hot day. We tend to let the young guys do that work. New guys think its fun for about six months then they ask to do something else, I think I’ve mastered hammering copper.”
Q: How long will a new still last?
A: It all depends on the level of use. A still that’s used hard, almost around the clock may last up to 25 years. A still used less, could last up to 100 years.
Q: How many stills do you make a year?
A: It varies but, right now, approximately 100 per year.
Q: Where does your copper come from?
A: About 95% of our copper comes from Germany. Domestically you can’t get anything wider than 36-inch sheets so we have to source most of our copper sheet from Europe. The turnaround time between when we order copper and it gets delivered is between 16 and 20 weeks. We had an order from NASA for rocket testing. We told them we need 16 to 20 weeks lead time because of the copper order. They called the manufacturer in Germany to see if they could get it here any faster. They were told 16 to 20 weeks!
Q: What areas of the world have you built and delivered products to?
A: We’ve installed systems all over the world including Ireland, Jamaica, Australia, Vietnam, Africa, Guatamala, Grenada, Puerto Rico and more.
Q: I see lots of craftsman here working with a lot of hand tools. How much of what you produce is handmade?
A: Everything is hand built starting with a flat sheet or plate. From there, everything is rolled, welded, formed, machined, assembled, tested and polished. All by hand. Then we deliver it.
Q: I see lots of copper, stainless steel and other metals around the shop. What’s the value of the inventory you keep on hand?
A: It’s really going to vary based on the orders we have in progress. In general, we have about $1.5 million tied up in inventory.
Q: I’ve heard your backlog is 24 to 36 months. It must be good to be that busy. Is that an accurate number?
A: Business is really good right now. Our backlog is about 12 months right now. If we have an existing customer that needs service or a part or something we’ll work with them to get them what they need as soon as possible.
Q: You’ve been around for over 100 years. What’s the average tenure for employees here at Vendome?
A: We are fortunate to have a great group of employees. We have several father-son teams that work here that are 2nd and 3rd generation as well as lot of employees that have been here 25 to 30 years.
The Vendome headquarters is located in a large 100 plus year old brick building a few blocks from the Ohio River. The building was originally built as a hotel in the 1800s. The city of Louisville, was built at the site of the “Falls of the Ohio.” Before the lock system was built on the river people used have to stop and have their goods portaged around the falls. Many of those river travelers would make the short trek up a couple of blocks from the river to stay at this historic hotel and spend the night.