Rimas Vilgalys hopes that Durham will welcome a new spirit into the city—a spirit of the honey-spiced liqueur variety.
Vilgalys, who opened The Brothers Vilgalys Spirits Company last year, is on the cusp of seeing his product, krupnikas, on ABC store shelves. Vilgalys' father has made the Lithuanian-Polish drink on his stovetop for decades.
"It's honey, there's a spice reduction and neutral spirits for the base," Vilgalys explains, adding that it tastes "like a gingerbread cookie."
"There's a lot of complexity; it's a drink with a lot more depth of flavor. What we're going to do here is essentially just make it the way I make it at home."
Vilgalys spends his days at the company's location on Ramseur Street in Durham, in what used to be a boxing studio. He's still fulfilling the requirements to sell krupnikas commercially, which he hopes will happen by September. After he secures the necessary alcoholic beverage permits, Vilgalys will work with suppliers to sell krupnikas in restaurants and at his distillery.
In making krupnikas, Vilgalys stays true not only to his ethnic roots, but also to his local ties. He grew up in Durham, attended college in California and decided to return to the Bull City after graduation.
"When I came back it just made too much sense to stay here," he said. "Durham has changed so much, especially in the past few years, especially since I was growing up here. I saw all these other companies springing up in Durham, all these great things that represent essentially the same kind of thing that I'm trying to push. They're very local and kind of trying to connect the farmers directly to the people eating and drinking."
Vilgalys studied creative writing and literature at University of California, Santa Barbara, with the goal of being a writer—something he still aspires to do. But krupnikas had been in the back of Vilgalys' mind. After returning to North Carolina, he enrolled in business classes at Durham Technical Community College and began researching the alcohol industry.
"It was this thing that I would talk with my dad for a long time about," he said. "He was initially very skeptical, and he'd been making [krupnikas] for a long time. He would say things like, 'You don't have a product.' And I would just say, 'Well, I kind of do.'"
Vilgalys thought of the idea after seeing his friends and acquaintances drink krupnikas. "I was having strangers email me, asking where they could get it because they had tried it from a friend," he said. "It's not necessarily a daily drink for most people. I drink beer most of the time, but for special occasions, for gatherings, for wintertime stuff or if it's cold outside, it's really good. And it mixes really well in ginger ale or coffee."
Vilgalys uses an enormous amount of honey in the liqueur. "I've been talking to a lot of beekeepers in the area. Most of them look at me like I'm crazy when I say I need 200 gallons of honey," he said.
He will purchase the alcohol wholesale until he has the funds to set up his own distillery, and he plans to buy his spices—about 15 of them, including cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger and orange zest—from local growers.
Vilgalys also wants the distillery to be environmentally sustainable. Currently, his system runs on electricity, but he plans to use a wood gasifier, which turns waste products like wood chips and sawdust into energy, he said. "You're not taking anything out of the ground, and it's locally sourced," Vilgalys explains. "[Sustainability] is something to me that if I was going to start a business, that's how I was going to do it."
Vilgalys formed a Founders Club, which currently has 84 members, that lets individuals donate to his fledgling company. Additionally, Vilgalys uses an organization called Slow Money North Carolina, which creates networks between lenders and loanees.
"The next phase would be to get a bigger place," he said. "I'd really like someplace in downtown Durham. I would love to set up galleries, music, just to get more people in here, and we could offer samples. That's the vision anyway, to hopefully get to that."
Topo Distillery vodka and whiskey in stores soon
Scott Maitland, owner of Chapel Hill's popular Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery, has his sights set high yet again.
In early August, the vodka and whiskey from his microdistillery, Topo Distillery, will be available in ABC stores. Topo Distillery is North Carolina's first all-local and all-organic distillery.
After working on the project for more than five years, Maitland is awaiting final federal label approval before he begins shipping and distributing his products. His distillery is located in the Chapel Hill News Building on Franklin Street, just a few blocks from his restaurant.
"Our goal is to be a distillery of North Carolina, so we're really focusing just on North Carolina," Maitland says. "One of the things that allows us to do that is that we can make any kind of liquor, from whiskey to vodka to gin."
Maitland is working with local restaurants and bars to make his products available there as well as on store shelves. Because he uses local suppliers as much as possible, he calls his distillery a facet of the local "farm to plate" movement—but for him, it's more aptly titled "grain to glass."
"I really hope that people buy the first bottle because we're local and organic, but then buy the second bottle just because it's darn good," he says.
Once Topo products are available commercially, Maitland will be offering tours of the distillery.