Director of Tourism Emily Burkhart pauses with president and CEO Leanne Powell at the solitary confinement tasting bar.

by Tina L. LaVallee

Every new business prays for a breakout, but few have their prayers answered by an actual prison. Southern Grace Distillery in Mt. Pleasant, NC, has seen their production and reputation bloom exponentially since moving from their 2,000-square foot startup in a former textile plant to the grounds of the former Cabarrus County Correctional Facility.

“It was a classic case of finding the right place at the right time,” said President and CEO Leanne Powell. “We had outgrown our first location and the town of Mt. Pleasant was searching for a high water use customer to occupy their empty prison. Not only did it have access to a large volume of water, but it also had heating and air, reinforced walls and fantastic security. It was perfect.”

Southern Grace completed the move in 2016 and immediately took advantage of the space that once housed 400 prisoners. The first location, established in 2014 in Concord, NC, limited the distillery to its flagship product Sundog 130 due to a lack of space for casking. Sundog 130, a 130-proof white whiskey, was well-received by both customers and critics, winning a gold medal at the San Diego Spirits Competition, a gold at the Fifty Best American Whiskeys Competition and a silver at the American Craft Spirits Competition. The Southern Grace crew could hardly wait to experience its potential with barrel aging.

That moment came in 2018 with the release of Conviction, an 88 percent corn/12 percent malted barley small-batch bourbon barreled at 100 proof and bottled at cask strength. Conviction is aged in the 1929 “Old Dorm” of the prison and Powell proudly proclaims it to be the first bourbon to be legally aged behind bars. True to Southern Grace’s mantra of hand craftsmanship, each label is handwritten with the proof, barrel number, bottle number and date bottled. Such attention to detail has not gone without critical notice, as Conviction has already earned a gold medal at the MicroLiquor Spirit Awards and a double gold medal at the Fifty Best Bourbons Competition.

Southern Grace’s repertoire has grown to include Zero Dark 130, a 100-proof version of the popular Sundog 130 that is dedicated to those who serve in the U.S. armed forces. Sundog 130 also forms the basis for three more popular blends: Sundog Pink Lemonade, Sundog Apple Dumplin’ and Sundog Habanero. Pink Lemonade and Apple Dumplin’ are 45 proof corn whiskey mixed with fruit juices, while Habanero is 80 proof corn whiskey with a spark of habanero chili peppers. Sundog Pink Lemonade and Sundog Apple Dumplin’ have earned their share of accolades as well, with Pink Lemonade scoring Spirited Lemonade of the Year at the Berlin International Spirits Competition and a platinum medal at the SIP Awards, and Apple Dumplin’ bringing home a silver medal at the American Whiskey and Bourbon Competition.

The sounds of Elvis Presley sonically age bourbon in the Old Dorm, giving a new meaning to “Jailhouse Rock.”
Photos courtesy of Southern Grace Distillery

For sheer atmosphere, the old correctional facility, now dubbed Whiskey Prison, does not disappoint. Built in 1929 at the height of Prohibition, Whiskey Prison looks like a scene straight out of “Cool Hand Luke,” complete with concertina wire, a guard tower and barred cells and dormitories. The Southern Grace team has taken care to keep the prison as original as possible while adapting the space to its new purpose. The sounds of Elvis Presley throb from the “Old Dorm,” where barrels of bourbon are sonically aged. Whereas much sonic aging can take place 24/7, this jailhouse rock keeps a 10 p.m. curfew to respect neighbors. The music does raise eyebrows, however.

“Folks on our tours think that we’re having a party,” said Powell. “They’re amazed by the real meaning of the music.” Tours with whiskey tastings are very popular and contribute significantly to the local awareness of Southern Grace’s products.

Distilling operations take place in the “New Dorm,” a four-cellblock building constructed in 1987. Fermentation is fittingly carried out in Cell Block F and bottling is handled in the Day Room. Head Distiller Sebastian Carrea, a graduate of Appalachian State University with a BS in Fermentation Science, operates two pot stills in the former Cell Block D.

“We evaluate every single gallon for quality and we’re not satisfied until we have a product that we would be proud to serve to family and friends. That’s what craft distilling is all about,” said Powell.

The Southern Grace team strives to produce from the heart, and this extends to giving back to the community. “I was in government for 20 years,” said Powell. “I worked with people struggling to help areas decimated by the loss of textile jobs. Bourbon is one of a few things that, by law, must be produced in the USA. I always thought that if we could start a distillery and make great bourbon, we could give a community jobs that would never go overseas.” Additionally, each bottle sold by Southern Grace carries a donation to a worthy local cause.

Southern Grace is currently distributed in six states, plus the District of Columbia, with more states and global distribution on the horizon. Plans are already under way to add another barrelhouse at Whiskey Prison.