Several Triangle distilleries scored big in 2016, earning critical acclaim and prestigious awards. Their accomplishments allow those of us inspired to buy local a chance to stock our liquor cabinets with booze that makes outstanding use of local ingredients and distilling expertise. Here are some of our hometown favorites.
505 West Franklin Street, Chapel Hill
Esteban McMahan went to California in January to accept a Good Food Award for TOPO’s organic vodka in the highly competitive Spirits category (which also featured Apothecary No. 15 Spruce and Birch Bitters by Raleigh’s Crude Bitters).
TOPO might have two new product launches in 2017, including its long-awaited Reserve Straight Wheat Whiskey, which McMahan says may be the only USDA-certified organic, locally sourced, 100-percent-wheat-mash-bill whiskey barreled for at least two years anywhere.
711 Washington Street, Durham
Last year, Durham Distillery reeled in quite a few awards for its five distinctive products: the “modern” Conniption American Dry and Conniption Navy Strength gins, and three flavors of its luscious Damn Fine liqueurs (coffee, chocolate, and mocha). The gins have dominated at national competitions, winning a total of fifteen accolades and earning Durham Distillery the title of No. 2 Craft Gin Distillery in the U.S. from USA Today.
The creamy Damn Fine Mochamade with Raleigh’s Videri Chocolatesnagged a bronze medal last month at the New York International Spirits Competition. It and the coffee flavor, which gets its kick from Raleigh’s Slingshot Cold Brewed Coffee, each earned two awards in 2016.
While Durham Distillery is focused on pushing distribution beyond state borders, the brand plans to introduce a new barrel-rested gin in late 2017. Additional Damn Fine liqueurs may followbut that “greatly depends” on whether the state relaxes its rules limiting distilleries to selling one bottle per person per twelve-month period, says cofounder Melissa Katrincic.
Fair Game Beverage Company
193 Lorax Lane, Pittsboro
Chris Jude, head distiller at Fair Game, is also a fan of TOPO’s vodka. In fact, he concocted an expert collaboration, infusing the vodka with mild, locally grown Tobago peppers to create Fair Game’s own 2016 success story, Flying Pepper. The smoky-sweet spirit goes perfectly in a Bloody Mary.
Agriculture-focused to the core, the Pittsboro distillery also makes a No’Lasses rum using Southern-grown sorghum and a signature Apple Brandy using pressed apple cider made in the North Carolina mountains.
The Brothers Vilgalys Spirit Company
803 Ramseur Street, Durham
Much as his dad tinkered years ago with a stovetop recipe for a spiced honey liqueur, Rim Vilgalys has been testing variations since the successful launch of Brothers Vilgalys Krupnikas in 2012. Pineapple and pomegranate batches were promising, while a strawberry-kiwi experiment ended in a goopy mess.
Finally, Vilgalys has settled on a winner. Days before Christmasand just shy of the fourth anniversary of having introduced the Lithuanian beverage, which is flavored with a blend of aromatic spicesVilgalys announced the release of Winter Cranberry Krupnikas. Currently a limited edition product, it is sold in ABC stores and the distillery’s tasting room.
“Cranberry really changes the character of the drink pretty significantly,” Vilgalys says. “Where Krupnikas is sweet, this is pretty tart, with everything elsethe complexity of the honey and spiceslayered behind it.” Drink it straight up or on ice, he suggestsor mix it with Fair Game’s Apple Brandy.
Great Wagon Road Distilling Company
227 Southside Drive, Charlotte
Gary Crunkleton is always on the lookout for new spirits to feature at his bar, The Crunkleton, in Chapel Hill. He’s especially keen on Great Wagon Road Distilling Company in Charlotte, which produces an American malt whiskey called Rúa and an Irish moonshine called Drumlish Poitín.
Created by Ireland-born distiller Ollie Mulligan, Rúa won the drinks category of Garden & Gun‘s annual Made in the South awards. Made in small batches with mash from neighboring Olde Mecklenburg Brewery and mountain water imported from Yancey County, the complex single malt is described as a “polished winter warmer with hints of coffee, toasted grain, and dark chocolate.”
Crunkleton thinks it’s one of the best new entries he’s tried. “The Rúa has a smooth entry with great earthy tones from the malt,” he says. “I am proud that an American single-malt whiskey of this quality is made locally.”
Rúa also earned awards this year from the American Craft Spirits and Seattle International Spirits competitions. If you can’t find it at your local ABC store, visit the company’s website.