The next time you sit down to order a bourbon at your local gentrified cocktail bar, likely choosing from a variety of craft distilleries and getting suggestions and tasting notes from your bartender along the way, stop to consider that it hasn’t always been this way.
“When I was 25 and ordered Wild Turkey 101, people looked at you like you were a roughneck who was gonna start a fight,” says Wild Turkey’s now grey-haired master distiller, Eddie Russell.
Having started as a union man working in Turkey’s distillery (where his father, Jimmy Russell, was the master distiller, and now, in his mid-80s, still hasn’t fully retired), Russell has been around long enough to remember the lean years, when clear liquors ruled the market and consumers were loathe to drink their “grandad’s bourbon.” If you fancied yourself sophisticated and worldy in the 1980s, you probably drank vodka, like James Bond. At the time, bourbon was marketed to a narrow demographic of early to middle-aged Southern men, Russell says. Good ol’ boys, basically.
These days, Russell is far from the only Kentuckian to note how things have changed, and you don’t have to be staring at a bar menu to notice. Business is booming at the Vendome Copper and Brass Works, where they make custom copper stills for distilleries. They’ve been open since 1903, but in the past eight years they’ve been producing 40-50 stills a year. If that doesn’t sound like a lot (keep in mind Vendome fabricates custom copper stills one at a time), consider that even a giant like Wild Turkey, owned by the Campari Group, only has one still. Consider that, according to Vendome, there’s currently “no market for used stills.” Which is to say, the stills out there are mostly all spoken for.
On a cool weekday morning at the Vendome factory in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood on the south bank of the Ohio river, workers are doing everything from welding, drilling, shaping, polishing, and etching, and they seem pretty committed. There’s a guy in denim overalls welding the seam on a big copper cylinder who rolls up a sleeve of his thermal to show me a tattoo. It’s a still, covering his whole right forearm. It’s easy to see why this kind of hands-on work looks attractive to laptop monkeys like myself. No one ever gets a spreadsheet tattooed on his arm.
As I walk through the factory, a buzzing hive full of polished copper where robotic drills work alongside human welders, drillers, and shapers, I notice all the workers are wearing the same type of hat — a sort of backwards baseball cap with a small brim, somewhere between skull cap and baseball hat.
“What do you call those hats?” I ask, raising my voice to be heard over the noise. Two guys working on a still door with welding torches pause their work and look at each other quizzically.
“I don’t know… I think they’re just called welding hats?” the first guy says. Cool, cool. I carefully scrawl out W-E-L-D-I-N-G H-A-T-S in my notebook, nodding thoughtfully.