The inside of the former Chapel Hill News building almost looks like something out of a sci-fi novel, with copper and glass contraptions spread out across the warehouse space and, in places, climbing up into the skylights.
But as Top of the Hill Distillery's "spirit guide" -- get it? -- Esteban McMahan gives a tour, we quickly learn that all of this precision German machinery is actually used to make the only local, organic liquor in North Carolina.
And by the end of June, Topo is hoping to have the long label-approval process finished and its bottles of vodka and white whiskey in ABC stores around the state.
"We're getting there," says McMahan, adding that the in-store price point for Topo's vodka will likely be just a little less than something like Grey Goose or Ketel One.
The tour doesn't take all that long -- from pots and stills to storage to bottling and labeling -- but the end of it is where we really learn what the distillery is all about. That's when we taste Topo's two products against mass-produced products already on the market.
The vodka -- which, as we all know, is supposed to taste like nothing -- has a nice sweet edge to it, thanks to the local, organic wheat it's made from. Tasted alongside both high-end and low-end vodkas you can find in stores, it's easily the better sipping drink.
The white whiskey is a tougher comparison. The word whiskey usually brings to mind bourbon, which is aged in charred barrels to give it that brown color and woody caramel sweetness. Topo's whiskey is not aged -- it takes four years of cask time to be able to call whiskey bourbon -- so its main competitors on the shelf will be "moonshine"-style products.
Soon everyone will be able to taste for themselves. McMahan says lots of bars and restaurants around the Triangle can't wait to carry the hyper-local hooch after taking a tour and trying it out. And because of the brand, they know the customers will follow.
"We think that a lot of people will buy it because they recognize it as Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill, at least initially," McMahan says. "Then I think people will buy it because it's really, really good." TW
Check out the slideshow for more photos from the tour.
The tour we attended was a fundraiser for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, which kept 100% of the proceeds from the evening. The OCRCC is in the midst of its annual campaign -- through the end of July -- in which it's hoping to raise $30,000. So far the center is about $12,000 shy of that mark. To contribute, visit www.ocrcc.org/donate.