An Interview With Scott Maitland, the Man Behind Top of the Hill

It’s not hard to miss Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. The restaurant, located at the corner of East Franklin and Columbia Streets, has become an iconic part of the quintessential college town.

Top of the Hill’s proprietor, Scott Maitland, recently launched a new business several years in the making, He and his staff are producing vodka, gin and whiskey at TOPO Distillery. The distillery, located on West Franklin Street, boasts world-class equipment, and the spirits are made with local, organic ingredients.

We talked with Scott about entrepreneurship and his venture, but first we’ll get know him better. Check back later this week to learn more about Scott and TOPO, and about Esteban, TOPO’s spirits guide.

Starting with the basics:

Occupation: Owner of Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery, and now TOPO Distillery. What is your hometown? Chapel Hill, N.C. When did you move to North Carolina? I moved to Carolina 20 years ago, but when I was 15-years-old, I knew that I wanted to live in the South. I was lucky enough to go to West Point and then, after I got out of the army, I got a full scholarship to law school at Carolina. I’ve been here ever since.

What do you love best about North Carolina? Do you have a couple of days? I like the people, the culture, the energy – it’s aggressive but hasn’t forgotten its past – the beautiful topography and the location itself. I immediately felt at home. And then I really loved being here and wanted to stay. I love Chapel Hill and Carrboro particularly, but I also love the state of North Carolina.

What type of music do you listen to when you’re cooking in the kitchen? Last night I was cooking to Chatham County Line. When we are distilling we do different things. It’s eclectic.

Top 5 favorite foods? (anything goes) (1) I love my mom’s cooking. I don’t really like it in general, but my mom’s corned beef is fantastic. She makes unbelievable meatloaf. I’m a comfort food person. I appreciate food, but when I think of friends and family, I think of comfort food. I try to recreate dishes that I grew up on, but with a modern twist. (2) Truffles. I am kind of mad about truffles. (3) Scallops. (4) Chocolate Chess Pie – again my mom’s cooking. At the end of the day I like foods that bring back memories of friends and family. (5) Mexican Food, specifically tacos al pastor.

What is your comfort food? Putting the distiller twist on it, I’m not sure it’s food. A nice IPA or gin martini will typically cure all.

Are there any foods you won’t eat/try? No. So, it’s weird because I never used to eat Brussels sprouts until about last year. But I think I’ve had them three nights in the past seven days.

What is the most memorable meal you’ve eaten recently? My mother-in-law has a huge garden, and she brought a whole bag of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and onions. And I made this great salsa/relish out of it all. I served that on top of salmon that my wife and I poached and paired it with fingerling potatoes. And then my mother-in-law also gave me fresh parsley, which we crushed with kosher salt for the potatoes. That was it. Simple. Nothing really fancy, and we paired it with a nice Vouvray. We sat on our back porch – we have a beautiful backyard – and enjoyed.

The ingredient you currently can’t stop using is: I just got this grinder jar of everyday seasoning from Trader Joe’s. It’s got coriander… I find myself putting it on everything.

You have a day with absolutely no obligations. How do you spend it? Having two kids (3 1/2 year old Kailey and 20 month old Austin), I don’t know if I can remember those days. But I think that I would definitely play a round of golf. And come back and cook dinner with my wife and have cocktails and dinner on our back porch.

What are some cooking challenges or techniques you would like to tackle?  My challenge in the TOPO Distillery is all about being local and organic. I’m really trying to figure out the local supply chain for my botanicals found in the gin. Specifically, I’m trying to find a way to source local juniper berries. It’s ironic because all the botanists believe that the juniper berries originated in this area. I want to create some kind of community harvest where people get it out of their own yards. But then everyone is concerned about organic certification. So, at any rate, these are the challenges of making a local gin. We also want to make a rum out of sorghum.

Who is one person you’d love to cook with? I think it would be fun to cook with Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery. He is the author of Brewmaster’s Table. Seems like an interesting cat.

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