New releases from one of North Carolina’s most inventive distilleries
By Tony Cross
Four years ago, I was in my final couple of hours of wrapping up a Saturday night behind the bar. It was busy and I was slinging drinks and carrying on the type of banter that goes with the territory. Usually after 8 p.m. on a weekend night, most of my guests were relaxed enough to tolerate, maybe even laugh at, my antics. In between the chaos, two gentlemen took seats at the bar. After greeting them, I turned around to grab a bottle of rye and make a drink. “Do you guys carry TOPO spirits?” one of them asked. It had to have been some sort of divine intervention, because my first thought was, “Yeah, but you’re the only person to ask for it.” TOPO vodka was the first local spirit I carried, and I was a little disappointed that guests weren’t flocking to support a local distillery. Another way of putting it is: My feelings got hurt when guests didn’t like what I did. But instead of talking first and thinking later, I said, “Actually, yeah, we carry their vodka. It’s good stuff.” Good job, Tony. Not being a smart-ass paid off for once. I had just met the owners of Top of the Hill Distillery, Scott Maitland and Esteban McMahan.
Since that night, I’ve formed a relationship with TOPO’s spirit guide, McMahan. No one in North Carolina’s distillery game seems busier than him. If you follow TOPO on Instagram (handle: topoorganicspirits), then you know exactly what I mean. If I had to guess, I’d say that he’s doing three to four events a week across the state. The guy is everywhere. And thanks to McMahan’s work ethic, I was able to debut my carbonated cocktails on draught to a ton of people when he asked me to bartend with him at an event two years ago. Since then, we’ve collaborated a few times and he always makes a point to let me know when he’s in the vicinity. The last time I saw McMahan was in March when he wanted to link up so he could turn me on to TOPO’s new whiskey. After having a drink and catching up, he gifted me a bottle of their organic Spiced Rum and Reserve Carolina Straight Wheat Whiskey.
I first got a taste of TOPO’s Spiced Rum last fall during Pepperfest in Carrboro. McMahan had invited my friend and co-worker, Carter, and me to come out and use pepper-infused TOPO vodka with our Reverie strawberry-ginger beer. We had a blast, and our cocktail even took first place. While we were there, we got to see the TOPO crew unveil their newest spirit, the Spiced Rum. A few months prior to Pepperfest, the guys over at the distillery were still tweaking the rum. They’d given me a taste at the time, and it wasn’t bad. When I got to try it at Pepperfest, it was clear they had gotten it just right. On the nose, there’s vanilla, orange, and the slightest whiff of banana. On the palate, orange and vanilla are still present, but I can also taste spices — cinnamon is definitely there, clove is subtle, and allspice seems to round it out. McMahan says their rum is “N.C.’s only USDA Certified Organic rum. It is distilled from organic evaporated cane juice and molasses, and spiced with organic fruit and spices. Unlike most spiced rums, it is not heavily sweetened post-distillation, nor are there artificial colors and flavors.” Heck, the rum was even awarded a bronze medal at the American Distilling Institute Competition this year. I would suspect that rum purists might not go crazy about it, but I think it’s fun to play around with, and goes well in a variety of mixed drinks. You can definitely go the Dark n’ Stormy route, or you can fiddle around with something like I did below:
Kind of Blue
2 ounces TOPO Spiced Rum
3/4 ounce pineapple juice
1/2 ounce lime juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup (2:1)
2 ounces Reverie Ginger Beer
Take all ingredients (sans ginger beer) and pour into a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake like hell, and then pour two ounces of ginger beer into the shaker. Dump everything into a rocks glass. Garnish with fresh grated nutmeg (using a microplane).
As much as I like to stay busy, I can do lazy, too. Case in point: that bottle of TOPO’s Reserve Carolina Straight Wheat Whiskey. I didn’t want to open it until I could take a picture of it for this issue’s column. I’ve had this bottle staring at me from my kitchen counter since March. All I had to do was take a picture of it. Well, I did. Tonight. And I opened it. Tonight. One of my friends has been telling me how good this whiskey is. I’ll be hearing “I told you so” sometime later this week.
I asked McMahan about TOPO’s new whiskey, and he had this to say: “The TOPO Organic Reserve Carolina Straight Wheat Whiskey is N.C.’s first and only locally sourced straight whiskey. It is distilled from a 100 percent wheat mash bill of USDA Certified Organic soft red winter wheat from the Jack H. Winslow Farms in Scotland Neck, N.C. It is distilled below 80 percent ABV, barrel aged in #3 char new American oak barrels two to four years at no more than 125 proof, and then it’s non chill-filtered.” I know, he forgot to tell me how smooth this whiskey is. Congratulations are in order, too. McMahan was just notified that TOPO placed gold in the San Francisco Spirits Competition. No drink recipe for this one, folks. If you must, an old-fashioned. I’ll take mine neat with half an ice cube. Cheers.
Tony Cross is a bartender who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.