WILMINGTON — Distillery owner Scott Maitland spent Thursday evening preaching the virtues of handmade, small batch North Carolina-made liquors to a group of about 30 New Hanover County Alcohol Beverage Control employees.
“The spirits speak for themselves. You can make a world class, local and organic spirit,” said Maitland, who owns Top of the Hill distillery in Chapel Hill.
Maitland was premiering his new vodka, gin and wheat whiskey to ABC employees at a product knowledge event designed to help them promote and sell local liquors.
Top of the Hill products are just among the latest North Carolina-created liquors to hit the shelves of local ABC stores.
ABC Retail Manager Gary Cain said New Hanover “jumped” on the local liquor trend as soon as the state ABC commission started approving them.
Back in 2007, there was one state distillery available for sale in the ABC store - a moonshine made by Piedmont Distillers and NASCAR legend Junior Johnson.
By 2010, three other distilleries had come on board, but it was still primarily types of moonshine.
Cain said moonshine is such a part of the culture in North Carolina that it only made sense to give people “a legal way to drink it.”
“There is some mystique about it (moonshine),” Cain said. “It’s nostalgic. People see it and think about when they were younger.”
New Hanover ABC stores carry about 15 types of moonshine currently, he said.
But North Carolina distilleries have branched out since 2010 and New Hanover ABC stores now carry 38 different types of local liquors. A selection of gin, vodka, whiskey, rum, brandy and even herbal liqueurs, have joined the local hooch.
Cain said New Hanover has been one of the most successful counties in the state for selling the local liquors. He attributes this success to the tourism industry.
“Tourism is a big part of the reason we brought these here. We know that when people come to North Carolina they probably want to take a souvenir back to Ohio, Virginia, these places,” Cain said. “It’s good for sales because they are probably going to buy two - one to drink and one to take back. It helps double your sales pretty quickly.”
The beach town stores sell the most North Carolina products, he said.
But it’s not just for tourists. Cain said Wilmington area consumers are “appreciative” of ABC’s move to carry more local brands.
The “buy local” trend has grown in the past decade through all areas of sales from food to clothing and theories on how it trickled down to liquor abound.
Cain attributes it to the economic downturn in 2008. He said with so many people losing their stable jobs, they were more willing to branch out. He said he noticed this particularly among North Carolina moonshiners because it gave them a way to “take an old fashioned family tradition and make some money.”
Maitland’s theory is more generational.
He attributes the recent rise of local liquors to millennials, the generation born between the late 1980s and 2000.
“Who is buying your organic foods, your locally-grown strawberries? Millennials,” he said. “And millennials are just now turning 21. They will start wanting that same local quality in their liquors.”
Top of the Hill makes vodka, gin and wheat whiskey that is made with all organic and state-grown products, according to Maitland.
It’s his “grain to glass” strategy that he hopes will attract recently of age millennials and convert longtime fans of other brands.
Thomas Bledsole, a sales representative for Republic National Distributing, attributes the rise of local liquor in North Carolina to the craft beer movement.
Bledsole represents three state-run brands and said that he finds people are more willing to buy those liquors now than when he first started six years ago.
“They are trying craft beers and realizing that some of those are good,” he said. “People are more accepting of brands they’ve never had before. They are more willing to branch out with liquor types.”
Bledsole adds that local liquors in North Carolina have at least one other big advantage over similar trends in other states.
“I feel North Carolinians are loyal to the state and they are willing to support that,” he said.