Scott Maitland knows how to draw a crowd.
Maitland owns Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery and TOPO Distillery. The business is a big stop for tourists and visitors, especially on alumni weekend and game days.
The distillery, which produces whiskey, gin and vodka, is one of 33 distilleries in North Carolina and the only fully local and organic distillery in the South.
Though TOPO Distillery offers tours three nights a week, Maitland can’t sell visitors any alcohol.
North Carolina is one of 17 control states, meaning liquor sales are state-controlled, and one of three that prohibit distilleries from directly selling to customers.
This will change Oct. 1, when a law signed June 19 takes effect. The new law allows distilleries to sell one bottle, per customer, per year.
Maitland has been working to get the law passed for about four years.
Maitland was a UNC law student 20 years ago when he decided he didn’t want to practice law.
He did want to stay in Chapel Hill, however. When the town announced a chain restaurant would be taking a prime spot on Franklin Street, Maitland took a risk.
“I didn’t want a chain restaurant to dominate downtown Chapel Hill,” he said. “I had no money and no experience, but I raised the money.”
Maitland bought the lot at the corner of Franklin and Columbia Streets and built Top of the Hill, which opened in 1996.
Maitland wanted to create a place to bring people together.
“Our location, and the impact that we have on lives – the driving force of that was to be the social crossroads for downtown Chapel Hill,” he said. “There was no place before Top of the Hill where parents, professors, students, staff members, townies – where they could all get together.”
In 2012, Maitland took another risk – opening the TOPO Distillery.
A growing industry
Maitland predicts the new alcohol law will help promote the sale of local liquor – it’s hard to compete with the national brands, he said.
According to the ABC Commission, over 6 million bottles of liquor were sold in North Carolina in May 2015. Of that number, only 0.3 percent were from N.C. distilleries.
Jeremy Norris, the owner of Broadslab Distillery in Johnston County, which opened in 2012, said being able to sell liquor to people touring distilleries will bring money to N.C. businesses from other states.
“We’re keeping tourist dollars in the state,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing all around.”
Maitland said about a third of his visitors are from out of state and likely won’t purchase his alcohol from an ABC store. There are too many obstacles, he said. If weekend visitors tour his distillery Saturday night and want to buy liquor before they leave the state, they can’t because ABC stores are closed on Sundays.
Maitland and Norris think the law will also help promote innovation among distilleries.
“A state-granted monopoly is not as innovative as private concerns,” he explained.
Maitland said selling liquor directly to consumers, even with restrictions, will help market distilleries’ products to ABC stores by establishing a consumer base.
The current ban has kept N.C. distilleries from enjoying the same rapid growth N.C. breweries and wineries have seen in recent years, he said.
“Everyone talks about local beer, and I’m just surprised that they don’t realize that’s an option with distilling as well,” Maitland said. “But we’re seeing that change. We’re seeing people starting to get the idea that spirits are in fact an agricultural product.”
How does TOPO make its liquor?
Each batch starts with 4,000 lbs. of local, organic wheat.
Cooking or Mashing – six hours – The wheat is cooked along with 1,700 gallons of hot water and organic enzymes to break carbohydrates in the wheat down into simple sugars digestible by the yeast.
Fermentation – five to seven days – The “mash” is then cooled to room temperature and yeast is added. The yeast starts the fermentation process and creates about 9 percent alcohol by volume in the mash.
Stripping – one day – After fermentation is complete, the alcohol is stripped from the wheat and water mixture. The wheat and water are given to a local hog farmer to feed his hogs. TOPO has cut water usage by 70 percent by recycling all water and is the only Green Plus certified microdistillery.
Rectification – one to three days - The mixture is converted back and forth between liquid and gas several times. The mixture is comes out in three different phases during this process: heads, hearts and tails. Generally, the hearts, the middle and best quality group, are used for the final product, though gin and whiskey use some tails as well. This process takes about one day for gin and two to three days for vodka and whiskey. This is also when other ingredients, like juniper berries for gin, are added.
Rest – two weeks
Bottling – four days
Each batch can produce 17,000 bottles of vodka or gin or 22,000 bottles of whiskey. Bottles are labeled one by one.