In 1994 as a UNC law student, Scott Maitland heard that a chain restaurant was on the verge of inking a deal to open in one of the prime spots on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. The idea of a corporate logo crowning the top of the hill in his adopted hometown was more than Maitland could stand.
"I had no money or experience at the time, but I was not going to stand by and let a TGI Friday's take over," says Maitland, who remembers his father always crafting "crazy business plans" as a way to escape the boredom of his job. "And that's how I started Top of the Hill."
After opening in 1996, the restaurant and brewery quickly became a favorite of students and locals, especially on game days. Its beers, most of them dubbed with UNC-friendly names like Ram's Head IPA and Kenan Lager, consistently win awards at North Carolina and national competitions.
Maitland is counting on similar performance from his current venture, TOPO Distillery. He enthusiastically gets his geek on to explain the technology behind how the beautiful stainless steel tanks and copper still are used to convert local grains, spices and, importantly, water from OWASA, the public water utility in Orange County, into the Southeast's first certified organic spirits.
"Our plan is to create something truly unique and special here," Maitland says. "It's science for me, and I think it's a logical extension of the commitment people feel toward buying local organic products."
TOPO is produced in the former loading dock of the Chapel Hill News, a brick building situated near the Chapel Hill-Carrboro line. Not counting the facility, insiders conservatively estimate the investment in the world-class CARL artisan distillery system at $1 million. (Maitland would not disclose the cost.)
Maitland and business partner Esteban McMahan are determined to source nearly all ingredients within 100 miles to produce TOPO vodka, whiskey and gin—the latter of which was introduced on April 7, the 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. Freshness and terroir are important to Maitland, whose commitment benefits operators of small farms that can't count on consistent income.
An exception to the 100-mile rule is the mild dried juniper berries imported from Latvia and Estonia, which, McMahan says, distinguishes dry Piedmont Gin from other "juniper forward" options. "Four people tonight said they don't like gin," he says after concluding a tasting tour for about two dozen guests. "Only one still felt that way after trying it."
Future products may include other abundant and palate-pleasing local ingredients, such as an elderflower or honeysuckle cordial. They also are raising honeybees of the roof with the idea of bottling honey whiskey.
The entire process to distill TOPO spirits takes three weeks from grain to glass. Yields range from 1,300 bottles for vodka to 1,900 bottles for whiskey. In the final step, liquor streams from a repurposed five-spigot milk bottling machine made in 1949, and labels roll on one at a time. Next comes the cork stopper and a paper ribbon bearing the USDA Organic label.
TOPO spirits are available in most ABC stores and share shelf space with more familiar mass-market labels in many Triangle area bars. The brand should be available in Virginia and West Virginia in coming months. "I see us becoming the spirit of the Southeast," Maitland says.
TOPO hosts evening group tours, which include the production area and—for those over age 21—tastes of its products. This is done in comparison to other top labels to demonstrate why locally sourced ingredients and attention to detail make a discernible difference.
"The ingredients are expensive and the stakes are high, but we make a premium product that is less expensive than Grey Goose and Ketel One," Maitland says of TOPO's clean-tasting vodka. "I'm not a moonshiner and I don't aspire to be one. We're already a world-class producer of beer and we're going to produce world-class, locally made spirits."
This article appeared in print with the headline "King of the hill."