Distilling the local on West Franklin Street

Jun. 21, 2014 @ 12:01 PM

“I knew what it was like to be a lawyer. I would always know that. But if I didn’t try another business opportunity when it came up, I would go through life wondering what I might have experienced.”
Scott Maitland, owner of Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery at the corner of Franklin and Columbia streets, is explaining why he took the risk about 20 years ago to open that business when it looked like the odds were stacked against him.
But he could just as well have been talking about his latest business, a distillery operating in a former newspaper printing plant on West Franklin Street. Maitland says most people in Chapel Hill still do not know that the town is home to a real operating distillery.
It might have helped if the distillery business had used the same Top of the Hill brand that he has worked to build. He tried, but the federal tax and licensing authorities would not approve it. Hence the name is TOPO for the distillery and the vodka, gin, and a soft whisky made from North Carolina winter wheat.
“People still do not realize that the distillery and the brewery deal with agricultural products,” Maitland explained. “That is because, for the last 50 years, both those industries were dominated by huge concerns, and the manufacturers were removed from our daily lives. First the craft beer movement of 20 years ago, and now the craft distillery movement, provide a way to reconnect these products to our local economy.”
Maitland’s goal in his handcraft brewery and distillery is, to the extent possible, to use organic and local agricultural products. Getting all local products for the brewery is an almost impossible challenge. But most of the ingredients to produce vodka and gin are readily available nearby.
Craft distilleries, like craft breweries, can make higher quality products than their mass production competitors, Maitland asserts. “People think that all vodkas and spirits are created equal. It's not true. Here's a dirty secret in our industry. Seventy percent of the distilleries do not make their own alcohol. They buy it from concerns that mass-produce alcohol. The difference is that anyone who's brewed beer or baked bread knows. The yeast you use makes a big difference in the final product. So if you are mass producer making ethanol, you don't know what part will end up in somebody’s drink or in his or her gas tank. Consequently you make choices that maximize the alcohol production, rather than the taste.”
Even after further distilling, the bad taste remains “so you have to filter it and when you filter out the bad flavors you filter out the good flavors, too.”
Handcraft distillers can choose their yeasts, raw materials, and low-volume processes to produce distinct and pleasing tastes.
The visitors that Maitland encourages to tour the distillery on West Franklin Street have a chance to compare the taste of TOPO products with those of popular brand-name vodkas, gins and whiskeys, and make their own decision about which ones suit their palates.
Maitland is not worried.
He thinks TOPO wins every time.

D.G. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on The Herald-Sun editorial page on Wednesdays and on line at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/opinioncolumnists/martin.