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Copper & Brass
Thursday | 16 April, 2015 | 1:00 pm

Fabricating libations

By Gretchen Salois

Above: Copper eliminates sulfur compounds in the distillate.

Craftsmen create custom-made copper distillery equipment

April 2015 - Dubbed “liquid alchemy” by Ernest Hemingway in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” distilled spirits and brewed concoctions can transport a person to a distant memory or be the anecdote for a lousy one. Distilleries invest a lot of time and effort into the distilling process and take special care to acquire custom equipment. 

Founded on the bourbon industry in 1904 in Louisville, Kentucky, Vendome Copper & Brass Works Inc. has worked with a lot of alcohol makers to fabricate distilleries, as well as with other equipment manufacturers that require custom devices produced from copper. 

Vendome is the shop that potential distillers and brewers turn to whether for bourbon, whiskey, vodka, rum, gin or beer. “We are a custom fabricator. We don’t try to make the same products,” says Michael Sherman, vice president. “We customize every job, even it if means a slight variation to customize an order to make it unique.”

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In fact, the company’s long and reliable reputation is confirmed each and every time a potential customer comes in and says they want to open a distillery and need to know what they should make and how much it will cost, says Vice President Rob Sherman. “We often work backwards with our customers. They come in not sure of where to start, what to make and how to go about doing it. We offer our suggestions, including finding out how many hours a day they want to work, how many weeks a year, and if they’re doing multiple products, what style they have in mind.”

The craft brewery industry has been around for a long time and continues to gain popularity. “Today, you’ll find a distillery or craft brewery on every corner in cities across the U.S.,” Mike Sherman says. “In the past five years we’ve seen an even bigger insurgence as acquiring permits is easier than it was before.”

It wasn’t always so easy to open up an independent distillery in the U.S. “I can’t tell you exactly when certain states eased up on fees and regulations, but I can tell you when we noticed states like Tennessee and Washington changed legislation because we had every moonshiner calling us up [telling us] they wanted to go legal,” Rob Sherman says. 

Complicated connections

Fabricators use old-school techniques to achieve the final result. “Back when the craft distilling started picking up for us we looked to do more cookie cutter stills with certain sizes and shapes but it didn’t take us long to realize not one size fits all,” Rob Sherman says. “We hammer the copper into all the shapes needed to provide our customers with unique equipment.” 

Vendome also uses equipment to streamline operations like its latest acquisition, a plasma cutter from Cutting Systems Inc., which helps cut the tops and bottoms of pots. The bed of the cutter is 13 feet by 26 feet. “The plasma cutter allows us to lay the copper out and cut holes and custom shapes,” Rob Sherman says. “The plasma cutter makes an eight-hour job take only 15 minutes.” 

Because the shapes are unique, “it would be difficult to try to manufacture the products robotically,” Rob Sherman adds. “We have 36 overhead cranes that flip pieces around and place material into position.” Vendome fabricators TIG weld the copper, which is preheated between 400 and 700 degrees. 

“We also do a lot of MIG welding because there is a lot of fixturing involved.” Steel fixturing works best to form and hold components together because “copper likes to shrink and move,” explains Rob Sherman. “Steel I-beams and plate hold the part to keep it to size. Because copper naturally wants to move once heat is applied, you end up spending more time doing the fixtures than the [main] copper parts.”

The copper begins as flat sheet, plate and tube and pipe. One of the biggest challenges of working with copper are lead times on orders. On average, it can take 20 to 24 weeks because the material is sourced overseas. “Domestically, you cannot get copper over 36 inches wide and we need larger widths like 48- and 60-inch sizes because they fit the needs of our equipment a lot better,” Mike Sherman says. “We order a lot of those wider sheets—about 75 percent—from overseas sources to have a good sized inventory on hand.” 

The challenge for Vendome is to keep ahead of orders. “It’s not easy and we’re short on a few different thicknesses. The sheet we currently have on order is not due for another three to four weeks—we could really use that right now,” Mike Sherman says. 

The company keeps an eye on copper prices, “but we don’t do a lot of market playing,” Mike Sherman says. “When we place an order we lock in the price.” 

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Stainless can’t replace copper

Copper is traditionally used for distillery needs and is often necessary because during the process, the alloy reacts with sulfur compounds to remove sulfuric odors and taste. Those with tighter budgets work with Vendome to fit in some stainless steel components, but there are some areas of the process where substitution doesn’t cut it. “When using stainless steel, sulfur compounds are left in the distillate and can negatively affect the taste,” Rob Sherman says. 

Vendome’s work isn’t limited to solely spirits. Its customers serve other industries including confectionary, pharmaceuticals, dairy and chemicals.

The appeal that cheaper stainless steel has to many distillers in particular, is waning, according to Mike Sherman. “The funny thing is a lot of distilleries went to stainless but now they’re adding more copper to their systems. Some of the older generation says that things were distilled better with copper.”

While stainless steel has longevity and pricing on its side: “Everyone says put stainless in and you’ll never have to replace it ever again,” Mike Sherman says, yet it doesn’t offer the same properties as copper.  “You might need to replace copper more often than stainless steel, but many find the investment in copper for their process is worth it.”

Challenges working with copper go beyond availability and price fluctuations as finding talented welders can be difficult. “You don’t just go and hire a copper welder,” says Mike Sherman. “We have to create him. We find good workers who come in and are willing to put the time in. We’ve had some great stainless steel and carbon welders who can’t pick up copper welding—it’s not that easy.” 

The process of welding copper includes the welder physically being inside the vessel being welded. “It’s a hot process and a lot of people straight up don’t want to learn how to do it,” Rob Sherman explains. “Copper welds are similar to aluminum but it takes experience to see how copper reacts on an edge weld or how the middle of the sheets will fare, or how working with different thicknesses makes it more difficult to weld.” 

The key is to find someone who embodies both artistic and technical prowess. “When we find someone interested, we tell them welding is the easy part. The hard part is making it look good and deliberate with good fit-ups,” Rob Sherman explains. “A good craftsman needs to be able to plan it in their head and anticipate challenges.”

There’s not a lot of turnover at the company. “We’re not a typical sheet metal shop making the same things over and over,” Rob Sherman says. “The guys in the shop appreciate that no two jobs are alike. The workload is challenging and it’s different—I think that’s a good thing.” MM

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