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For vodka, a Chapel Hill distillery in the works



You can't talk about the Triangle's local booze scene without a nod to Scott Maitland. Maitland, who opened one of the region's first brewpubs with Top of the Hill in 1992, helped set the stage years ago for a local beer industry that continues to grow. Maitland's story, however, doesn't end there.

He's planning the next chapter to begin in February, when he hopes to start distilling and selling the state's first legally made vodka, under the label Topo Spirits. He has secured the former Chapel Hill News building on Franklin Street for the operation.

Running a newspaper and operating a still, Maitland tells me with great pleasure, occupy the same class of activity in the eyes of the state. He'll need to do little construction to make the place booze-ready.

Maitland's first project, which towers over the corner of Franklin and Columbia streets, is a highlight of Chapel Hill's social scene. In early evenings, Top of the Hill sees its share of professors and graduate students; at night, it brims with undergraduates; and on game days, it's more of a question of who's not there than who is.

To say that the bar goes through a lot of booze is an understatement. Maitland says he'll sell about 4,100 kegs of Top of the Hill beer this year, all on-site. And Top of the Hill brings in a ton of other beverages, too. The volume of liquor he sells sparked the idea to create more options made in-house—or down the street, as it may be.

Maitland, a native of southern California, became dismayed by that area's rapid suburban growth during his childhood. He longed to find a place to settle down that was like the community that his grandparents described—somewhere with lots of local shops and neighbors who knew one other. In the early '90s, when he moved to Chapel Hill for law school, he felt as though he'd found just that. So in 1994, when the building that now houses Top of the Hill began construction with the news that a T.G.I. Friday's would open on the top floor, Maitland panicked.

"I didn't want a chain to open," he says, and started raising funds to open his own place. Of the brewpub, he says, "It was the anti-chain, a place where you could only get the products there."

Maitland will distribute Topo Spirits vodka throughout the state at ABC stores. He has established relationships that will enable him to use local wheat to produce the vodka. To cap his bottles, he'll use synthetic corks from Zebulon's Nomacorc factory.

But there's still a lot at play before the distillery is a go. According to Maitland, you can't submit an application to become a distillery until you have started building it. He's determined, however, that such policies will not slow him down. With financing from BB&T and construction permits in hand, he's ready to move forward.

After vodka production is in place, he says, Topo Spirits will produce gin, bourbon and rum. For the last spirit, Maitland hopes to lobby the federal government to consider sorghum molasses as a viable option to create rum and still consider it such. The government currently defines rum as liquor made from sugarcane and its offshoots, which include sugarcane molasses. To hear Maitland describe the endeavors, it seems like a lot. But then again, who's to say the man with the bar up top can't keep reaching?

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