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TOPO Distillery to close Feb. 15 after more than 10 years in business

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Top of the Hill Distillery on West Franklin Street is permanently closing its doors on Jan. 29, 2023.

The Top of the Hill Distillery will permanently close on Feb. 15 after sustaining a loss in revenue.

The distillery opened in 2012 and was the first locally sourced organic distillery to open in the South. It produced a wide variety of liquors, including vodka, gin, unaged whisky and wheat whiskey.

Visitors were offered a tour of the distillery on Friday and Saturday nights, where they could try samples of liquors and learn about the distillation process and various spirits.

Scott Maitland, the proprietor of TOPO Restaurant and Brewery and TOPO Distillery, said he decided to open the distillery after producing microbrewed beer using a small canning machine at the brewery starting in 2001.

However, at the time of the distillery’s opening, distilleries were prohibited from directly selling liquor products to visitors.

This was due to North Carolina granting a monopoly to the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission stores, preventing local distilleries from selling their liquor products directly to consumers.

Maitland said some ABC stores in the state sold a limited number of liquor products from North Carolina distilleries, yet refused to sell products from businesses that had low sales.

“North Carolina distilleries literally could not sell their products,” he said. 

Maitland met with elected officials to push for North Carolina Senate Bill 24 and N.C. House Bill 107, which made it legal for North Carolina distilleries to sell liquor products distilled on their premises for consumption off-premises. The parallel bills would have allowed distilleries to sell one bottle of liquor to each visitor per year, but neither of them ever made it out of committee. 

Proponents of the bills believed they would bolster the financial stability and profitability of local distilleries and support the growth of the craft distilling industry in North Carolina. 

“My entire career in the distilling industry was changing the laws to make it so that distilleries could actually make a living,” Maitland said.

Maitland also said TOPO Distillery’s liquor stood out because the alcohol was fermented by the distillery itself, whereas some distilleries purchase alcohol from generic manufacturers.

“What we did was more expensive but just tasted better,” he said. 

Drew Beard, the assistant editor of Drinkhacker, a drinking guide and review blog, said his experience at TOPO Distillery was positive.

“Some distilleries create a product and are pretty rigid about it,” Beard said. “To Top of the Hill’s credit, they were always seeing where they could improve.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Esteban McMahan, a spirit guide at the distillery, said the distillery ran a hand sanitizer operation using unsold beer that had accumulated as a result of the lockdown.

“When the pandemic hit, all that bulk ethanol that people were buying ran out really quickly,” he said. “So the only way you could make hand sanitizer and sell it was if you could make your own alcohol, and so we could.”

The distillery sold the hand sanitizer it produced but also donated nearly half of the product to shelters and first responder units as far as Washington, D.C., and Memphis, Tenn. 

Maitland said when people discovered that the distillery was closing, many beneficiaries of the hand sanitizer reached out to thank him.

McMahan said the revenue from the operation helped to financially support TOPO Restaurant & Brewery during the pandemic. However, given the competition with big businesses, Maitland said it did not make much sense to continue the distillery’s operations.

“How you make money in the distilling business is (to) buy your alcohol from somebody else, and say it’s yours," he said. "I refuse to do that.”

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