Distiller infuses history into authentic, hand-crafted moonshine


George Smith, founder and CEO of the Copper Barrel Distillery in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

George Smith stood behind the tasting bar, bottle in hand.

The bar is underneath a pair of heavy metal doors, the entrance to the boiler of the old Key City Furniture Co. factory in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

“That’s where the maintenance crew would climb inside the boiler, scrub it out and inspect it,” said Smith, referring to the doors.

Smith is founder and CEO of Copper Barrel Distillery, which for a year has occupied the old factory; some of the original bricks, thanks to Smith, are still part of the building, as is the rooftop silo, which, in the factory days, collected sawdust.

On this cool, cloudy Saturday in March, a curious customer wanted to try all of Smith’s moonshine products, including those now available and those that just aren’t quite ready, such as the espresso, green apple and creme brule.

Smith poured, and he poured again.

You get a feeling Smith could do this all day, and he probably would. One could only hope to be the thirsty customer on the other side of the bar.

Every tilt of the bottle brought another smooth surprise, another story from Smith. He talked about the recipes and the business. About his still house dog, Domino. Much of the time, Smith talked about Buck Nance, his master distiller. About how Nance’s father invented the steam-distillation process Copper Barrel now employs, about how Nance worked on racecars with the great Junior Johnson. About how Nance, who is 70, has distilled liquor for some 60 years, all the while perfecting his unique recipes — which are now collecting all kinds of awards — including a perfectly smooth 96-proof white lightning, the base for the distillery’s fruit liquors — strawberry, blueberry, black cherry and red cherry.

Infusing white whiskey with blueberries, for instance, seems a bit unconventional. Strange, even.

Not at all, Smith says.

“That was purposeful. We wanted to have flavors that are unique. You really get to enjoy the flavor of the fruit.”

Buck’s best-sellers. Historically, speaking, of course.

“It’s the same way Buck has done it,” which entails going easy on the sugar, says Smith. “We throw the rye, the corn, the cane sugar into the mash, add the water and yeast so it’s five ingredients. That’s it.”

There’s much more to the story.

Nance is a local legend. Smith, however, came to North Carolina from Vermont, where, growing up, he spent a lot of time on a farm. Work brought Smith to Charlotte, where he eventually became president of a local Bourbon club, where he met Bill Samuels Jr. of Maker’s Mark. Smith later met Samuels in Kentucky, and Samuels sort of showed him around the place.

“What other industry do you know that people are willing to help each other to get started?” Smith asks. “That’s so rare.”

Smith returned to North Carolina and told his friends, with whom Smith was bouncing around business ideas. His mind was set.

“When I got back, I told my friends, ‘Guys, I’m going to do this … with or without you.’”

Smith made a list of criteria — access to fresh water, local grains, demographics related to tourism, those sorts of things— and visited and ranked some 20 cities in North Carolina before choosing North Wilkesboro, where he met Nance, who planned to help Smith install the equipment and teach him to use it.

The men became friends.

“He came to me one day and said, ‘George, I don’t know if you’re interested, but I think I’d like to work with you full-time.’ I was shocked,” Smith says.

“It’s been amazing working with this guy, getting to know him and hear his stories. He’s got it down to a science. I couldn’t have paid for that type of knowledge and experience. So, for him to offer to basically join as a partner and actually take responsibility for making all our products … .”

The distillery, says Smith, uses the only licensed and operating well within city limits, a crystalline rock aquifer, the resultant whiskey the product of equipment that Nance designed and built.

“Our product is truly authentic — from the grain to the water, to everything. This is why, I believe, Buck decided he wanted to partner with me. He realized very quickly that we both have a strong regard for integrity.”

Copper Barrel is one of two distilleries in Wilkes County; Call Family Distillers in Wilkesboro is the other. Both are part the N.C. Distillers Association and just two of the dozens of stops on the state’s Craft Distillers Trail, a partnership with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Copper Barrel, which offers a 10 percent discount for military veterans, celebrates its first anniversary with a special event Saturday, April 16. The distillery is also a must-stop during MerleFest, set for April 28-May 1 on the campus of Wilkes Community College.

The festival, according to MerleFest.org, was founded in 1988 in memory of the late Eddy Merle Watson, son of American music legend and stalwart Doc Watson. “MerleFest is a celebration of ‘traditional plus’ music, a unique mix of music based on the traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, and expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock and many other styles,” the website says.



Bourbon Affair quenching US thirsts

            Sometime during Casabourblanca, a signature event of the second Kentucky Bourbon Affair last year, my wife — who was celebrating her 50th birthday — sidled up to legendary distiller Jimmy Russell, to introduce herself and to tell him thanks for being a part of the best party ever.

            Russell smiled, told her he’s been making Bourbon 13 years longer than she has been alive and pointed toward a special bar, tucked away in a corner of the old hangar at Bowman Field in Louisville.

“Old” Bourbons, he told her, rare and mostly unavailable. Try some of those, he said.

We did.

It’s tough to imagine the Kentucky Distillers Association — distillers comprising the Kentucky Bourbon Trail — can duplicate the once-in-a-lifetime experience offered in 2015.

It will try, of course.

“We’re always trying to one-up ourselves a little bit,” Adam Johnson, director of the Bourbon Trail, told me.

“If you’re having a cocktail on the roof of the Brown-Forman campus the first year … or if you’re tasting from the first barrel of Woodford or you’re shooting skeet with two master distillers at Wild Turkey … the list goes on and on,” Johnson says. “This is not stuff that happens all the time.”

The 2016 Kentucky Bourbon Affair is June 14-19 — a “six-day Bourbon fantasy camp featuring exclusive behind-the-scenes tours and tastings at the world’s most iconic distilleries,” says a KDA news release.

America has developed an insatiable taste for Bourbon, and organizers sold all 50 of the Affair’s Golden Tickets — sort of an all-access pass — in 15 minutes. Still, about half the tickets for events throughout the week were available, as of Friday, Feb. 5. Tickets to individual events range from $35 to $275, and 1,500 to 2,000 visitors are expected.

The annual Affair gives people the chance to rub elbows with distillers, aficionados and the people behind the brands.

The Affair culminates with “Whisky Live,” featuring a whiskey-themed dinner and a international sampling of Bourbon, Scotch and whiskey.

“Having that in Louisville for the first time will be really cool,” Johnson says. “Having all those international whiskies on Kentucky’s home turf, I think, will be fun. It’s a good complement to have something large that a lot of people can go to but still have a lot of these smaller events that people will like as well.

“I think if people look at the schedule and see what we have to offer, whether it’s Heaven Hill’s build-a-barrel, where you’re going to help craft your ideal Bourbon … or visiting historic Stitzel-Weller … or tasting one of these really old T.W. Samuels whiskies” in the home of Maker’s Mark COO Rob Samuels … .

The Samuels’ event has sort of a top-secret element, unless, of course, you have a ticket. Then you get a ride.

“Anytime you can’t put an address on an event is always kind of fun,” Johnson says. “

The Bourbon Women Association will host “Anatomy Academy: Women, Men and Bourbon,” offering tastings and research debunking “the notion that women prefer lighter, sweeter and lower proof Bourbon,” according the event’s description.


“What people think (as) more high-rye Bourbons, or rye whiskies even, women seem to really like those almost more than the men do sometimes, and they just haven’t had them before,” Johnson says.

“So it’s always fun at these tastings to see what people like, or what they can get exposed to, which is really what the Bourbon Affair is about.”


Huffington Post: Kentucky Bourbon Trail offers history we can touch, taste, smell

This blog first appeared on the Huffington Post.

Bourbon whiskey continues to trend upward, as more and more drinkers eschew clear and imported spirits for a taste of the iconic brown liquor.

Production, says the Kentucky Distillers Association, has increased more than 170 percent since 1999. At 1.3 million barrels, production in 2014 reached its highest mark since 1970.

That’s one big Kentucky hug.

But pretend, for a moment this has less to do with Mila Kunis than it does tradition and a history we can touch, taste and smell — the indubitable angels’ share, as much as 40 percent of the aging whiskey escaping from each barrel, stacked high in the rickhouses, through evaporation.

It can be argued, by me anyway, it’s that smell, that unforgettable bouquet of Bourbon that makes the Kentucky Bourbon Trail a path worth taking.

Eight distilleries, members of the Kentucky Distillers Association, formed the Kentucky Bourbon Trail in 1999, an experience juxtaposing the history at Woodford Reserve with the ultramodern Evan Williams Experience.

Excuse my informal language, but that’s what makes the Kentucky Bourbon Trail so damned cool. It’s becoming a trail well worn, the proverbial beaten path, which could become even busier should Kentucky pass Senate Bill 11, allowing distilleries to sell cocktails on site, among other things.

Last year, distilleries on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail and the Kentucky Bourbon Trail Craft Tour recorded 900,000 visitors, reported the Lexington Herald-Leader, citing the KDA.

But before you go stomping off to Kentucky and shelling out a few bucks for a tour, remember you’ll taste Bourbon in its naked, unadulterated state — warm and straight. If that turns you off — don’t know why it would, but — here are a few things to keep in mind to ensure a once-in-a-lifetime adventure:

Eat the chocolate

Each bourbon tasting is accompanied by a special, truffle-like piece of chocolate, made with a distiller’s signature bourbon. Stock up at the gift shop and save some for special occasions; they’re that good.

Get the connoisseur’s tasting at Heaven Hill, Bourbon Heritage Center

We found ourselves in a small group, so it became a more personal experience. Visitors also get to taste some really great Bourbon — stuff that goes for close to $300 a bottle, such as a 23-year-old single barrel Elijah Craig and small-batch-bottled-in-bond William Heavenhill.

One trail, diverse and amazing tours

With eight distillers making basically — I said basically — the same product, the potential for repetition and monotony seems inevitable. But each tour is unique, entertaining in its own way, replete with smart tour guides to help as through a complex, celebrated and sometimes notorious history of this close-knit community. Tastings are often available, sans the full tour. Jim Beam offers self-guided tours — for free. It’s a nice little walk, which conveniently ends at the tasting room. The downside is you get just two tastes, so take a partner who doesn’t mind sipping after you, or vice versa.

Go off trail

Not all of Kentucky’s distilleries, including Buffalo Trace in Frankfort and Barton 1792 in Bardstown, are part of the trail. Buffalo Trace, which now owns the legendary Pappy Van Winkle brand, is near Wild Turkey and Four Roses. So, by all means, go off-road. If you have time — and even if you don’t — check out the KDA Craft Tour, featuring 10 smaller distilleries.

Beer and Bourbon!

Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co., which makes Town Branch bourbon, also — as its name implies — makes beer, which is aged in, you guess it, used Bourbon barrels.

Just add water

If the whiskey seems a bit to hot for your liking, simply add a splash of water, which changes the character and complexity. It’s there, so use it if you must. Booker’s, from the Beam family, can reach 120-proof — no gauging here. Check out some tasty barbecue in the nearby smokehouse, then go have another taste, or two.

A life story, on a few curled sheets of paper

A few curled sheets of paper. Small, lined, loose yellow sheets, ripped ever so carefully from a notebook.

Words hand-printed, in black ink. Meticulous in their simplicity.

My father’s words.

A life story, on a few sheets of paper.

Sometimes I can’t sleep, he tells me. I get up and write things down, he says.

“I tell my story.”

Part of the story, really. One short, poignant chapter.

The real, unabridged story, the story his family knows so well, rests between his printed lines. Undisturbed and unrecorded.

The military service, marriage and children. In his heart, for sure. But not on the page.

A lifetime of hard, skilled work. No mention.

His brother’s death. A heart attack. Cancer. He says nothing. He prefers silence. Quiet.

We know the story, of course. His family. We were there. He understands this, so why repeat it? Why relive the pain, if only this once?

Maybe, to him, none of this much matters. We were there, my mother, brother and I. When he returned home from work. When he laid in the hospital beds. When we discussed the radiation treatments.

No longer alone, the pain dulled by time. Memories are mostly clouded, opaque. But not gone. Never gone. These are the memories he writes down. In an apartment he shares with his wife, my mother. On a cool, damp Virginia morning. The day hasn’t quite emerged, still gray, translucent. His handwriting is clean, crisp. The words sharp and exquisite. Sad and beautiful in their austerity.

“I was born … .”

In Lawrence, Pennsylvania. Hill Station, they call it. Built around a coal mine. Air is acrid, thick with smoke. Wintertime snows darkened with coal dust. His father, my grandfather, was a miner. When he worked. Mostly, he didn’t. Mostly, he drank.

My father was one of four living children. A sister died as a baby. A brother, Melvin, was struck and killed. Drunk driver. Melvin was 6.

“I guess we were very poor as a child,” he writes. “I didn’t know. But my mom said there were times we had nothing to eat. My father found escape in drinking what money we did have.

“He was bitter that Melvin was killed and resented me. He would take John (his brother) hunting and fishing, never me. I would talk to him and he would say, ‘Get out of here.’”

The pain returns in a naked, unadulterated wave. Red-hot and sharp.

“One memory I have never forgotten: He had change in his pocket and jingled it. I reached for it and he nailed me good. Never did that again.”

My grandmother was saintly, and John, his brother, did what he could to help raise my father. Years later John died when his boat capsized on Lake Erie.

For my father, school was difficult. Hurtful.

“I started school at 6, first grade, and failed. I was always in the last row. I realized I could not see the blackboard and never had a teacher who cared. I was very shy.

“As I grew older, my friends and I used the railroad and mine area as our playground, jumping on rail cars, entering the mine entrance and swimming in the sulfur creek, which was an open sewer, and sliding down slate dumps on a piece of tin.

“You know the Lord was looking out for me. One of the kids lost his legs. One was blinded by a dynamite cap. One fell from the trestle and was killed.”

That’s all. The last sentence. A life story. On a few curled sheets of paper.








Pass the scalpel; I’m going to write

I received no warning, no intimation.

Through no fault of my own, I no longer had a job.

Just like that. I listened to the news, trying — in vain — to understand. I touched the red button on my phone. It was over.

Just like that.

Now what? I relayed the news to my wife, who at first failed — or refused — to believe me.

It’s this business — news/journalism/media. It happens. All of the time.

Now what?

Thing is, I know the answer. Knew it for years, actually.

I will get another job, and I will write. Throughout my career in journalism I’ve edited more stories than I’ve written. Far too many more.

I took a big step toward a more fulfilling writing life when earned my MFA in creative nonfiction from Goucher College, and I think I have a damned good manuscript to prove it. I learned from the best writers, from a group of mentors, classmates — friends — with whom I hope to never lose touch.

The book of late hasn’t been a priority, taking a proverbial backseat to — borrowing a line from Seger here — “deadlines and commitments … what to leave in, what to leave out.”

The book has been mostly out, although I did — after some revision — manage to print the 180 or so pages for my wife to read. Well, I paid someone to print it, so she could touch, hold and grasp the pages. She’s old school like that.

Truth be told, as my Goucher friends know, I owe Lisa infinitely too much to tally; among them the story for the book, my family, the chance to write. To do something I love, alongside someone I love.

We pick at each other, Lisa and me. We nag one another, we disagree and we argue. It’s all part of the process. Much like writing.

Hemingway, I think, said it best: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Pass the scalpel.



Luc De Leeuw/Flickr

As newspapers struggle, readers search for the truth

Newspapers, as they slowly — and painfully — sink into a quick-sand filled pit of irrelevance, still speak much about integrity, of truth and credibility.

Newsrooms and reporters, I think for the most part, hold those tenets intact. Sure, they sometimes miss too many stories and fail to investigate potential points of corruption, but much of that has to do with staffing — the lack of it — and that a bulk of the stalwart veteran reporters have left through terminations and buyouts.

Many really good reporters and editors — some of whom are friends — continue on, doing the best they can each day to fulfill a commitment toward finding the truth, weeding out corruption and telling good stories.

But so often anymore, corporate types — publishers, spokespeople and bean counters — undermine their efforts by failing to, well, tell the truth.

Things are bad. Newspapers can no longer make money on ROP or classified ads, for example, and they have failed to effectively monetize the Internet. They’ve done nothing in 100-plus years to revamp a failed business model, and their readers are dying, literally.

So, enough with the subterfuge and sound bites, already. Just be honest. Rather, however, we get displaced optimism and misguided realism. Take, for instance the Tribune Review — or  Trib Total Media — in Pittsburgh, which “will lay off 153 full- and part-time employees as part of a restructuring of the media company,” said Trib President Jennifer Bertetto in the paper on Nov. 10.

“We are doing this to match the changing needs of our readers, subscribers, advertisers, business partners and our own employees, in order to build an exciting and profitable media future for all of those parties.”

The Trib isn’t alone, of course. There are other examples, including one just across the Allegheny River.

“’The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette offered voluntary buyouts to 120 employees, underscoring the newspaper’s struggles in the midst of ‘weak’ revenue,’” the Trib reported in July.

“Weak revenue,” they say. Yep, for sure.

Philly; New Haven, Connecticut; Rochester … the list goes on. More layoffs, more excuses.

After a round of layoffs last fall, USA Today had this to say, according to its website:

“USA TODAY is working to align its staffing levels to meet current market conditions. The actions taken today will allow USA TODAY to reinvest in the business to ensure the continued success of its digital transformation.”

Digital transformation? Please.

Tell your “loyal” readers this, or something like it:

“Sorry, we’re terminally ill and dying a slow, painful death. It hurts, and it hurts badly. But please, keep donating your hard-earned money, because we want to live just one more day. We understand there’s no cure, despite all of our hard research. We, as a company, think we have a future, so give us a chance to eliminate this parasite, which is sucking away all of our reserves, and pass it on to someone else, who might find away to boost his stocks for awhile or gain a convenient tax write-off. We will now, while we can, work to come up with a catchy ad slogan. Thank you.”