by Eric Ginsburg
The clear liquid Esteban poured into a mini cup on the left smelled strongly of rubbing alcohol, people agreed, enough so that a few were hesitant to taste it. In the small plastic cup to the right, he’d poured something with a much more appetizing aroma, as if the liquid had been filtered through a couple butterscotch Werther’s candies.
Esteban McMahan, the assistant secretary of the North Carolina Distillers Association, needed little else to make an opening statement. On the left, he’d given us a sample of the hip “hand crafted” Tito’s vodka. On the right, a taste of his own, the wheat-based vodka from Topo Distilling in Chapel Hill.
Thirteen curious comers filled up tables in the enclosed side room of the Marshall Free House, a British-themed restaurant and pub in Greensboro’s so-called Midtown neighborhood. In the lull before dinner on a Saturday, the venue’s bar manager and head chef were able to join McMahan for his two-hour spirits lesson.
Jay Pierce, the beloved former chef at Lucky 32 who now helms the Marshall Free House, reached out to McMahan for the event, because McMahan had converted him to Topo’s organic, locally sourced vodka using the same taste test.
“We don’t have to be bought, because we’re convinced,” Pierce told the attendees on Feb. 6.
Everyone present eagerly agreed.
McMahan pitted his product against Tito’s because the Texas-based spirit is viewed as the new standard-bearer for vodka. But McMahan argued the brand’s labeling is “disingenuous,” given that it’s no longer handmade, but mass-produced using a different process than its projected image.
He explained what many casual drinkers don’t realize but liquor lovers know — that many distilleries purchase bulk, neutral grain spirits that they then “produce” by flavoring, aging or filtering. Much “craft” gin is just re-distilled and flavored with juniper berries and other ingredients, and some “small-batch” whiskey is just aged and watered down from the pre-made spirit, he said.
“It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s not the truth,” McMahan said. He estimates that 70 percent or more of American distilleries aren’t actually distilling their own alcohol, but “producing” it.
His class for the afternoon didn’t need much convincing that the Topo vodka effortlessly prevails over Tito’s, and came to the same conclusion when comparing the distillery’s unaged whiskey (which is also called moonshine) to a generic corn-based moonshine produced in Georgia.
The Topo distillery is something of an aberration, with beehives on its rooftop for making honey whiskey and an aim of being a zero-waste facility. McMahan split his time between describing the Chapel Hill operation and offering samples of their vodka, gin and whiskey. But he also shared the stage with what is assembling into a sort of Greensboro Dream Team.
Pierce, who recently returned to the Triad from Charlotte, lends serious credentials to Marshall Free House. But with the addition of John Jones — known for his underground dining club called the Next Supper among other things on his résumé — the kitchen boasts two heavy hitters. (Pierce likened it to the Wonder Twins.)
And then there’s Mark Weddle, who most recently held down the bar at Josephine’s and who is easily one of the city’s most respected bartenders. You’d recognize him by his smile and ’stache anywhere. Dude’s a one-man powerhouse. And if their jovial attitudes on Feb. 6 are any indication, this trifecta of food & beverage giants appears to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Weddle presented three cocktails using McMahan’s spirits while Pierce, Jones and company distributed fanciful small bites as accompaniment. The offerings peaked at the end, with an incredibly balanced Phantom Old Fashioned using Topo’s unaged whiskey and a crostini with banana-lime mayo, porkbelly, rosemary chimichurri and topped with a bit of pig ear.
At least I’m pretty sure that’s what Pierce said, but by this point I’d sampled five or six liquors and knocked back more than two cocktails in the span of two hours, and I was too lost in the euphoria of taste and gluttony to ruin the moment with clarifying questions.
Attendees may have retained some useful and interesting facts from McMahan’s presentation, like the fact that Topo will put out a rum before long, or that its gin can be dangerously satisfying with fresh grapefruit juice.
But more likely they’re left thinking, as I am, about the juxtaposition between high-quality products and their boring counterparts, even when it comes to a basic spirit such as vodka. They’ll remember the morsels, such as the fried artichokes or another side featuring pickled turnip and pimiento cheese. If they didn’t misplace the recipe sheet already, they’ll recall Weddle’s gin concoction, the Concord, his spin on an aviation that incorporates a cucumber-and-lavender shrub with lemon juice and maraschino liqueur. Oh yeah, and the cucumber ribbon that Weddle fused to the side of the glass with liquid nitrogen. Hard to forget that.
Aviations are usually too perfume-y, McMahan said, and I strongly agree, but without the Lillet, the Concord flies. A few attendees who admitted to disliking gin still found favor with it, too.
But more than anything, the dozen or so people amassed that afternoon left with a newfound appreciation for well sourced spirits, and likely a sense of admiration for their ingenious hosts.
Visit the Marshall Free House at 1211 Battleground Ave. (GSO) or learn more about Topo at topodistillery.com. The first person to email me at [email protected] can claim a voucher for a free tour of Topo’s Chapel Hill distillery.
Recipe: Phantom Old Fashioned
If you’re feeling emboldened, try your hand at making Mark Weddle’s best cocktail from the event using this recipe. But stop by the Marshall Free House and ask for the original so you know how high the bar is set.
2 oz Topo Carolina Moonshine (un-aged whiskey)
0.5 oz spiced simple syrup
3-4 dashes of cherry bitters
Splash of water
Build in a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Garnish with orange twist and house-brandied cherry