Shawn Stevens has been a metal worker at Vendome Copper and Brass works in Louisville Kentucky for six years and has fairly well covered everything on the production side of building distillation equipment. Shawn has also become sort of the de-facto Vendome historian lecturing at colleges and special events. Nothing causes a distiller to geek out more than big shiny copper stills and distillers that are true of heart (particularly pot still distillers) tend to love the intricate little details in each and every specimen and how in the long run those “battle scars” give extra character and depth to the product they produce (at least from an Apocryphal standpoint). I figured many distillers and spirits admirers might enjoy hearing from a true American still builder at the professional level as they play such a big role in the distiller’s choices and styles of distillation, it takes a true artist to understand what type of still will produce the right type of product for the distiller.
Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to work at Vendome Copper and Brass?
Erector set. It all started with the Erector set my brother and I had when we were kids. I also have two uncles that were in the Sheet Metal Workers Union Local #110 when I was a teenager. It looked like something I would like to do and now it’s been over thirty years in the trade. The last 6 years have been at Vendome Copper and Brass Works, Inc
What drew you into coppersmithing and stainless welding? (is this the right word Shawn?)
I’ve always liked the artistic side of flat sheet construction. When I got into the trade you didn’t pick where you would work as an apprentice. They picked and I was placed at at Arhitectural Sheet Metal shop. Lots of standing seam roofs and gutters. Some of the parts that go with architectural gutters are pieces of art. I was transferred to an industrial sheet metal shop in my second year of the apprenticeship and that was what I did for a long time. Still there were times in those shops when we would fabricate tanks and vessels.
Can you talk a little about the types of stills and details you have helped custom build?
The two types of stills are a Pot Still and a Continuous Column still. A pot still is a batch system. You make a batch, clean the still and then make another batch. It doesn’t make a lot and it doesn’t make it quickly. A continuous system is just that, as long as you are feeding it mash it is making the product. Continuous still are more economical than pot stills and you can achieve a much higher proof, but pot stills are just so damn pretty! You know that’s why distilleries get them. There are a lot of components to both a column still system and a pot still system. At Vendome, they know what employee does a certain part of it the best and that’s the job they will give you most of the time. The parts of each system are the same each time but Vendome likes to let their customers tweak them in their own way. Simply said, just about everything we make is custom. Our QC procedure allows us to comment on every aspect of the fabrication and see some of our suggestions be implemented. Most of the time the guy that does a job the longest has come up with a better way to do something and that makes it easier on the worker and saves money for the company.
What is the oddest still you have been involved with? Any strange designs over the years? Special requests for bumps or dents in the copper from peculiar distillers?
There is a distillery in Durango Colorado named Honey House who contracted Vendome to produce all of their equipment with a mirror finish on each piece. Their spirit safe has an alternating pattern of mirror and satin finishes that creates a honeycomb look. The focal point though is the mirror finished five-foot diameter by four-foot-tall copper beehive that caps off the cooker. Another recent project has the doubler shaped like a copper pot stove on top of the mirror finished stainless steel legs. No, I don’t recall ever being asked to add dents. We have made systems that the customer wanted an aged look to some of the components. It doesn’t take long for copper to have an aged look. We go to great lengths to make sure the systems don’t have an aged look when the customer unwraps them. That’s how fast it will begin to look used.
Any favorite still designs or one you really enjoyed working on?
It definitely has to be the Honey House job. I worked on all of the smaller stainless pieces. The heads on the top and bottom of the glass U-Tube condenser were mirror finished stainless steel. This one was also my first with making all of the stainless proofing parrot piping.
Any specific details you have added/developed over the years for stills?
There was a time when we would cut down the height of condenser heads and grin the welds smooth. After I inherited the job, I asked why. No one had an answer other than height restrictions on the project and no one knew why we ground the welds smooth. Of for a time, we didn’t cut down the heads, not really sure why we are back to doing that but they know more than I do in the office. The welds being ground down smooth has been eliminated for good. They are way up in the air anyway, you would need a ladder to see them.
Pot still or Column still? (this one is for fun, your preference as to what type of still you think makes the best spirit)
Pot still, hands down. I am a huge fan of Pot Still whiskeys, the talent it takes to operate one and they are working pieces of art. I think they are so beautiful, that’s why they mostly get female names
As a quick aside and as a fun random answers question can you distill the history of Vendome copper and Brass into 5 highlights of history?
Elmore Sherman started the business 113 years ago after working for Hoffman Ahlers and Co out of Cincinnati. Just as they got going Prohibition reduced their customer base to almost nothing. They did jobs for woodworking companies and even moved a whole distillery from Henderson, KY. To Vancouver, British Columbia. That’s all the way across the country. In the 1920’s after repeal and them getting going again Vendome had to deal with the Great Flood of 1937. Vendome had water all the way up to the rafters of the building. When the water receded, they hosed off the equipment and went back to work. The second World War stopped the production of beverage alcohol by the government for the second time. Vendome was able to keep going normally due to the need for industrial alcohol for the war effort. The use of stainless steel in the 1950’s exploded and Vendome had to learn to work with the new material and also keep their coppersmithing knowledge fresh. Elmore Sherman Jr. took over the company during this time. The 60’s and 70’s were bad on the whiskey industry as people wanted clear spirits and a lot of Kentucky distilleries went under. Vendome had to branch out into the sugar, confectionary, pharmaceutical, chemical and especially gasohol industries to stay afloat. Elmore Jr. passed away in 1974 and his sons Tom and Richard took over. The business moved to their present location in the early eighties. The boom in Craft Distilleries happened right after I got hired and will ensure that Vendome Copper and Brass Works, Inc. will be the last Union Sheet Metal shop I will ever work for. I’m thinking of retiring in the next couple of years.
Any advice for those who might want to enter the trade?
Sorry, no. It’s not for everyone. If I had to do it again I might not stay until I had no other choice. Honestly these last few years have been hard on my body. I miss a few days every month from the pains. There are also the times where most of my day is in the dark under my welding hood, talking to myself and huffing different gasses, literally. Stay in school!