George Smith is the President and CEO of Copper Barrel Distillery — or as he’s better known to his friends and colleagues, the “Visionary Bootlegger.”
He was born and raised in Vermont, where his grandparents had a dairy farm. George credits the farm as the reason why he feels a strong tie to the agriculture industry today. He loved the time he spent on the farm growing up. It was a dairy farm with Holstein and Black Angus, and chicken, pigs and other animals, too. He fondly remembers helping out with the animals and working in the garden.
George has always been more of a liquor drinker than one to go for a beer or wine. He was working for IBM in 2012 when he became president of the Charlotte Bourbon Club, and became increasingly interested in whiskey. He was fascinated by what makes each type of whiskey different and what goes into the making of spirits. His hobby eventually turned into an idea to get involved with the agricultural community as a business, and he had a friend who suggested they open a brewery. But the brewery market had grown to become quite crowded, and they liked drinking whiskey better…so there you have it.
George had visited twelve cities and towns across the state, looking for a site that met very specific needs for the distillery – everything from access to fresh water and local grains to the community’s support of tourism. He went to a NC Main Street conference, where small businesses learn about grants offered in exchange for revitalization of rural downtown communities.
There, George met Robert Johnson, the Mayor of North Wilkesboro. Wilkes County has always been referred to as “The Moonshine Capital of America”. The Mayor supported George from the beginning, and George ended up selecting North Wilkesboro as the home of Copper Barrel Distillery.
“When George went to find a place to start Copper Barrel, he looked not only for a place with a rich moonshine heritage but also for a community where his company could do right by the people who live there,” says Kurt Graves, CEO Chair at Vistage. “George is the first guy to think of the other guy.”
George’s appreciation and support of local agricultural products and the community as a whole lead him to become a member of the Piedmont Culinary Guild.
“I joined the PCG because I believe in and support the mission and goals of the organization. I love the idea of connecting the food chain. This ties right back to my roots and I believe in supporting that effort.”
With Copper Barrel, George’s focus is to produce truly authentic artisanal spirits. He works alongside his partner, Master Distiller, Buck Nance -a true artisan with over 50 years of experience in equipment design, fabrication, and operation.
Core values are important to George and to Copper Barrel Distillery, particularly honor and integrity. Producing a truly authentic Wilkes County moonshine is very important to him. He likes being up front about where his products are from and how they are made.
Additionally, the preservation of the craft spirits heritage in NC is important to George. He has started a benefit festival called “Shinetopia” and “Moonshine Heritage Day” in North Wilkesboro and there are events tied to this special day across the county and state.
“George Smith is a great ambassador for all of NC and Wilkes County everywhere he goes,” notes Terry Bumgarner, Chairman, Wilkes Economic Development Corporation. “He speaks of how he loves to make spirits and of his newfound career. George has just accepted a seat on Wilkes County Economic Development Corporation. He promotes downtown North Wilkesboro with every breath he has, organizing music and cook-offs — anything to get people in the streets downtown. He is a true asset to our community.”
George has submitted a proposal to the state of North Carolina that Moonshine be declared as the official state spirit, to further help with tourism, and making NC a destination.
In the meantime, George also stays busy working to promote his community and was recently awarded the NC Main Street Champion Award, honoring his dedication to the efforts to revitalize downtown North Wilkesboro.
* This page was adapted from an article written by Bree Basham for the Piedmont Culinary Guild in March 2019