Top of the Hill Distillery In North Carolina, America’s Only Organic Distillery

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With the holidays just around the corner, a little liquor in the cabinet can be necessary to keep guests happy and cope with in-laws who overstay their welcome. When shopping, choose a product that’s not only high-quality but sustainable, to give back during this season of selflessness.

Stocking up with vodka, gin or whiskey from Top of the Hill Distillery (TOPO) in Chapel Hill gives a gift to the North Carolina community, supporting local business and organic agriculture. In 2012, owner Scott Maitland opened the only organic distillery in the South in the old Chapel Hill News building. TOPO handcrafts its spirits from scratch, bottling products in-house in a Green+ certified, eco-friendly facility. With a closed-loop water system, the heat exchanger reuses the water, reducing waste and wasted energy.

I’m not usually much of a spirit drinker myself; however, the idea of an organic distillery fascinated me. I’ll admit I held some pre-conceived notions, as I’m guilty of sometimes stereotyping organic advocates as yoga-practicing, granola-crunching hippies (What kind of Whole Foods, flower child opens a distillery?). I immediately signed up for a tour to see for myself.


The Man Behind The Business

As a West Point graduate and ex-Army officer, Maitland squashed that stereotype. Although some idealistic nostalgia for an era before strip malls motivated his business decisions, he openly admits he didn’t come around to these practices “from the hippie side of the equation.”

“Anyway you choose to look at it, mass-produced genetically modified foods are having unintended impacts on the food chain and I want to do my best to reduce that,” he explains.

Maitland grew up in Southern California, anxious to escape a place filled with the “wholesale destruction of farmland into strip malls,” and he vowed to find, or recreate, a 1950s version of SoCal. After finishing with the army, Maitland headed south to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to begin law school in a region of the country whose culture stemmed from a sense of place and connection to the land. Rumors that T. G. I. Friday’s planned to move downtown spurred Maitland’s anti-chain aspirations into action. Intrigued by the idea of producing a locally-made product that could only be enjoyed at a neighborhood eatery, he opened Top of the Hill Brewery and Restaurant, the fifth-oldest North Carolina brewpub and one of the top North Carolina attractions.

Top of the Hill distillery tour, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

TOPO Distiller Keith Crissman on the left and head distiller, Esteban McMahan on the right… definitely not hippies.

Helping The Community

In 2004, after serving as the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, Maitland become increasingly aware of how franchises robbed communities of keeping money local. Even a “local North Carolina” beer did not exist, as “locally brewed beer” would use imported barley and hops from elsewhere, places with superior soil and climate for those ingredients.

Maitland wanted to utilize local producers at his restaurant, but suppliers couldn’t keep up with his bustling business, that serves up to 1500-1750 dinners on a basketball game night. That’s when he decided to open an organic distillery — the first of its kind in the South — where he could make world-class spirits from 100% local ingredients. He bought Soft Red Winter Wheat from Williams Winslow’s Scotland Neck Farm as his base component, single-handedly keeping the state’s only organic wheat farm at the time in business.

TOPO distillery

TOPO is one of five distilleries in the US that uses grain in their spirits.

Although it took longer than anticipated to get the business up and running, Maitland along with his best friend (and the distillery’s “spirit guide”), Esteban McMahan, now run an award-winning operation that continues to grow.  Production began with vodka; however, customers can now purchase whiskey, rum and even “age-your-own-whiskey” kits. TOPO’s spirits have earned 50 nationwide accolades — not bad for a business started by friends with no previous experience in distilling.

Despite the long list of impressive awards, Maitland reflects, ”I’m most proud of taking an ingredient three times as expensive as its non-organic equivalent and still selling world class spirits cheaper than Absolut and Grey Goose. These companies inflate their prices because they are paying rappers to endorse their products.” He smirks, “Who needs JayZ and P. Diddy when you have me?”


Organic spirits. Photo courtesy of TOPO.

Organic Outreach

Throughout this journey, Maitland has created and maintained a symbiotic relationship with local farmers. TOPO shares spent mash with a local farmer to use as hogfeed, and the pigs return to the restaurant in the form of organic sausages and pork belly. Maitland continues to expand the market for organic products, especially as TOPO plans to become the only continental U.S. producer of organic rum. Currently, Florida houses the only American organic sugar cane farm; however, Maitland hopes his business will convince cane farms closer to home to switch to organic practices.

Maitland also uses academic and educational outreach to inspire others to embrace organic. His businesses have supported local festivals and organizations, like the TerraVITA event in Chapel Hill and Abundance Foundation in Pittsboro. To enact wide-spread change, however, Maitland knows you can’t just preach to the choir. He reaches non-believers as an adjunct professor at UNC’s business school and a teacher at North Carolina School of Science and Math, hoping to encourage his students to have better land stewardship and prevent the spread of chain businesses.


The Future

Although I was slightly disappointed that my distillery tour guides weren’t decked out in tie-dye and bell bottoms, I learned a lot from TOPO’s inspirational story. Not only that, but the product itself was unquestionably superior. Balancing TOPO’s vodka in my left hand and the mass-distributed Tito’s ”hand made” vodka in my right, I was skeptical when the facility’s ”spirit guide” claimed, “it doesn’t really take anything special to taste the difference”; however, one sniff and one sip made me a believer.  Some vodkas have an almost medicinal, isopropanol quality, but TOPO has a slight sweetness and is much smoother going down. Our tour guide attributed this difference to TOPO (1) using wheat, instead of corn, as its base, (2) attentively controlling the fermentation, as the mash is concentrated into spirit and (3) minimizing the use of charcoal filtering so the slightly sweet flavor isn’t removed with the extra proteins.

Hopefully Maitland will inspire other trail-blazers to start and support local businesses to further the creation of “chain-free” communities.  It’s sad to think some people complain about over-priced organic produce, but are willing to pay more for a rapper’s stamp of approval on a mass-produced product.  Maitland proves a high-quality product can cost less (his bottles range from $21.95 to $28.95) if you harness local resources. The direction of the future is up to the daily decisions of consumers. In my opinion, shopping local is one of the greatest gifts you can give your community and yourself.

*Featured image courtesy of Kamil Porembinski

Top of the Hill distillery currently makes their own gin, whiskey and vodka, all from organic and local ingredients. The label combines images from North Carolina’s Outer Banks seashore, Piedmont farms and the Appalachian mountains to celebrate state pride.  

Contributed by guest author Katie Foote. Photo courtesy of Katie Foote.

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