In my experience, most vodka is tasteless, flavorless, odorless, and boring. It's gin's less-interesting cousin, a somewhat palatable shot or a fine backdrop for vermouth, Red Bull, or ginger beer.
But TOPO's vodka is none of those things. An offshoot of Top of the Hill, the restaurant and brewery that's long been perched above Chapel Hill's Franklin Street, TOPO produces one of the highest-rated vodkas in the world, at least according to Esteban McMahan, a former finance guy who now takes the title of TOPO's "spirit guide." The spirit of the vodka is complex but mellow, quaffable but viscous. It's distilled from wheat instead of corn, and it sports a hint of heat on the finish. Sip slowly—and you should sip slowly, at room temperature—and you'll even get notes of butterscotch.
All the TOPO products are wheat-based, including gin, white whiskey, a young brown whiskey reminiscent of an Irish, and, soon, an oak-aged whiskey that tastes like, but is not, bourbon. With each of these, the pride of craft and of using (mostly) local ingredients to try to make something distinctive shines.
TOPO opened in 2012, and it is the oldest of the Triangle's six (legal, mind you) distilleries. Indeed, the state's craft-spirit industry is nascent, but it is prideful. I spent a week touring the Triangle's six distilleries and liqueur makers (and two meaderies), sampling every locally made spirit on the market. Some were more to my liking than others, but they all evinced TOPO's almost-obsessive attention to detail.
At Fair Game Beverage in Pittsboro, there's a delicious apple brandy made from Henderson County apples and aged for ten months in bourbon barrels. There's a perfectly spiced rum that's not really rum because it uses native sorghum instead of foreign cane sugar, and a tobago pepper-infused vodka that recalls a not-spicy habañero pepper.
At Raleigh Rum Company, owned by three old friends from Apex High School, you'll find a white and an aged dark rum that both hold up to just about any mixer. They stand on their own, too. On the other side of the Triangle, Durham Distillery makes a pair of exquisite gins: one lower-proofed and more subtle with the juniper, the other "navy strength" and loaded with flavorful botanicals. Don't miss the delectable liqueurs, made with Raleigh's Videri chocolate or Slingshot's coffee or both at the same time.
And then there are the actual liqueur makers, two of them, both based in the same warehouse in East Durham. The Brothers Vilgalys, which launched in 2013, boasts a spiced honey liqueur called Krupnikas. It's a traditional Lithuanian recipe that founder Rimas Vilgalys's father, a Duke professor, used to make on the stove for holidays. Vilgalys rents out space to Barrister & Brewer, which makes Mystic Bourbon Liqueur, or bourbon infused with wildflower honey. It's based on an old Scottish recipe and tastes something like an Old Fashioned doused with vanilla and coriander.
Vilgalys and Mystic import their booze, which isn't uncommon among microdistilleries. In the area, only Fair Game and TOPO distill from scratch, says Scott Maitland, TOPO owner and president of the North Carolina Distillers Association. Some purchase a base alcohol and then redistill it. But Mystic provides its distiller with a unique, wheat-heavy mash recipe. Such a mixture delivers higher-proof bourbon that maintains smoothness, says co-owner Jonathan Blitz. After a two-year aging process, some of that bourbon is sold straight, under the name Heart of Mystic. It's some of the best brown liquor to have ever crossed my lips.
By summer, Mystic expects to open its own distillery on a twenty-two-acre farm on the outskirts of Durham, complete with an event space, a tasting room, an heirloom cornfield, and a pick-your-own blueberry path. That's when the young company will start to do it all itself, from scratch.
It's an incredibly vibrant moment for local spirits, one that feels, in fact, like a lot of craft brewing ten or fifteen years ago, when it was on the verge of breaking out and going mainstream. (To wit, one of the area's beer kingpins, Tyler Huntington, is about to get in on the game with his Two Doors Distilling Co.)
Remarkably, all of this has emerged within the last four years. Less than a decade ago, North Carolina had no distilleries whatsoever. Now it has fifty-two, the most of any state except Kentucky. Hell, they claimed bluegrass for a while, too.
You can't buy the best mead that Durham's Honeygirl makes, at least not yet. It's called Bochet, and it's made from caramelized honey. Owner Diane Currier hasn't figured out how to scale up production, so she produces it out of her home test kitchen and samples it at Third Friday events and, well, to thirsty journalists. Reminiscent of an old European ale, it's darker and sweeter and boozier than most wine-style meads.
But Currier, who opened her shop in 2014, has plenty of other offerings. The Apple Cyser—which I preferred to its spiced cousin, which tasted too much like apple pie for an adult beverage—is crisp and dry, like a good white wine. The more traditional Orange Blossom mead is semisweet, complex, and smooth, especially when you score a three-year-old variety Currier keeps at home. (The less-aged traditional that she sells has a delightful hint of carbonation.) The fruit varieties, made by dumping blueberries or strawberries into the fermenting tank with honey, taste like you walked into a field and took a long, deep breath.
Though Currier has been making mead at home for years, she learned how to upscale her production through the Triangle's first meadery, Starrlight Mead, based in Pittsboro. (Next year, Starrlight will become neighbors with Fair Game Beverage, which, along with a cidery, will make this little section of Chatham County quite the drinking district.) Becky and Ben Starr have been in business for five years and making mead for twelve. They've developed an impressively wide array of flavors, from dry and semisweet traditional honey wines to meads infused with fruit or herbs like lavender and elderberry.
The many varieties of mead, Becky told me, allow you to broaden your wine-drinking horizons. You just need to give it a chance. Getting people to realize that has been the biggest challenge.
"Try mead," she says. "It's not what you expect."
Update: We missed one: Pebble Brook Spirits, which makes an apple pie liqueur, is also housed in the same warehouse as Mystic and Brothers Vilgalys.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Distillation's in the Details"