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Top of the Hill opens local, organic distillery

Topo owner Scott Maitland gives a tour of the new distillery that opened on Franklin Street. The distillery will produce whiskey and vodka. Photo by Duncan Hoge

By Rose Laudicina
Staff Writer

Great beer, a wide variety of food, a fun atmosphere and a prime location on Franklin Street, especially for watching UNC games, are all things Top of the Hill is known for – and soon local distillery will be added to the list.

While Topo Distillery’s two products, vodka and whiskey, aren’t available for purchase for another eight weeks, the distillery itself is already open.

Scott Maitland, founder and owner of Top of the Hill, came up with the idea to open a distillery in Chapel Hill five and a half years ago, as he became increasingly frustrated with his inability to brew truly local beer.

“It was a chance to do something I always wanted to do – a local, all-organic distillery,” Maitland said.

Although Top of the Hill produces “local” beer, Maitland said his beers, along with beers from other breweries in the state, are not truly local because the ingredients used are not produced locally.

But with the distillery, they are.

Using 75 acres of wheat grown organically in Scotland Neck, Maitland, his distiller George Dusek and assistant distiller Keith Crissman are able to produce around 10,000 cases of product.

“It is neat that we can create a local product that is literally 100 miles from grain to glass,” Maitland said. “We are creating a world-class product, and I hope the locals embrace it and realize the effort we are making.”

For now the distillery, housed in the former Chapel Hill News building on West Franklin Street, is focused on producing vodka and wheat whiskey.

“Our vodka has a naturally sweet quality,” Maitland said, adding that because of this people will be able to drink the premium vodka straight and not just use it for mixing.

“People ask me why they would need a good vodka if they’re going to mix it with stuff,” Maitland said. “I answer with two reasons: With our vodka you don’t need to mix it to make it taste good, and the taste you are covering up [with lesser vodkas] ends up being your hangover tomorrow.”

In using wheat to make the whiskey, the need to age the whiskey is eliminated. Topo Distillery has become one of only five distilleries in the country to make wheat whiskey.

Eventually Maitland hopes to expand the Topo Spirits brand to include gin and a new type of rum called sorghum rum. Currently in the United States, rum is classified as being made from sugarcane; however, since sugarcane does not grow in North Carolina and sorghum does, Maitland hopes to create a new type of rum in keeping with his mission to produce a strictly local product.

Although Top of the Hill, affectionately known locally as Topo, already has tremendous brand recognition in Orange County, Maitland wants to be known across the state and become North Carolina’s distillery.

“We don’t want to just be a Chapel Hill thing – we want to be a state thing,” he said. “We are much larger than just ‘Go Heels.’”

In order to become North Carolina’s distillery, Maitland has to go through the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC), since in North Carolina alcohol distribution is controlled by the state and liquor can only be sold through ABC stores, meaning Maitland has to transport his product to the ABC warehouse in Raleigh, and from there it can be shipped to all 400 ABC stores in the state.

Maitland is confident in his product’s success.

“We are not afraid of any other product on the market,” Maitland said. “Ours is a product that can stand on its own two feet.”

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