Southern Grace: Now Being Bottled
Jan 09, 2015 03:00PM ● Published by Jason Huddle
By: Kim Cassell
MOONSHINE IS A TERM THAT HARKENS BACK TO EARLY 20TH CENTURY APPALACHIA. THE NAME COMES FROM THE FACT THAT, AS AN ILLEGAL PRODUCT BECAUSE IT WAS TAxABLE, AND FOR FEAR OF BEING CAUGHT, IT HAD TO BE MADE AT NIGHT...UNDER THE LIGHT OF THE MOON.
Illegal distilling actually began during President George Washington’s terms in office when, in 1791, Congress passed taxing alcohol. While that first whiskey tax was repealed in 1803 after protests became violent, the federal government started taxing liquor again to pay for the Civil War. The tax rate was so high that distillers took to the woods or wherever they could hide a still.
Moonshining gained in popularity as the U.S. government enforced Prohibition; North Carolina was one of the first Southern states to enact the law. It was also a good source of income during a ruinous financial era – the Great Depression. And while Prohibition ended in 1933, North Carolina was dry until 1935.
According to ncpedia.org, “As time progressed, a vocabulary evolved around moonshining. The term ‘bootlegger’ is said to have originated with the mandate against the sale of alcohol to Indians, when traders often concealed flasks of liquor in their boots to avoid detection. By the early 20th century, a bootlegger was technically the seller of illegal alcohol, the moonshiner was the producer, and those who transported the product were called ‘runners’ or ‘blockaders.’ Law enforcement officials (from the Treasury Department) attempting to stop moonshiners were nicknamed ‘revenuers.’”
By the 1950s, illegal distilling was a well-known practice in the South and federal agents were hot on the scent. Between 1954 and 1964, more than 72,000 stills were found and destroyed in the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi.
Cars were modified – most especially the 1929 Chevy touring car – to haul and deliver moonshine without detection. Seats, gas tanks and undercarriages were converted to smuggling spaces with trap doors, shine tanks and locations for alternate fuel tanks. Wilkes County dubbed itself the ”Moonshine Capital of the World.” Future race car drivers like Junior Johnson and Curtis Turner started out as runners in the 1950s, a driving skill that gave way to NASCAR.
Today, moonshine – or distilled spirits as it’s now termed – is being created legally by artisans operating micro-distilleries. Manufacturing it for personal consumption only is still illegal. “Oddly, home brewers can legally make beer and wine for personal use, but distilling liquor on an unlicensed still is a felony punishable with a $10,000 fine and up to five years in a federal penitentiary,” moonshiner28.com says.
Leanne Powell is a Cabarrus County native...and president of Southern Grace Distilleries Inc. As a graduate of Central Cabarrus High School and UNC-Greensboro, she ironically worked in politics and government before, as she puts it, “taking a leap of faith.”
“I worked for (Congressman) Hefner, both in his Washington, DC, office and on his campaigns. After managing his 1994 re-election campaign I joined the Clinton Administration and worked
at USDA and at the White House. In 1999, my husband Drew Arrowood and I returned to Concord and I was a political consultant until managing Congressman Larry Kissell’s campaign in 2008. At that time I became his chief-of-staff and split my time between Concord and Washington, DC,” she explains.
Relationships Powell had formed during her years in government remain intact, as certain individuals have gotten on board with Southern Grace. “My partners and I all worked for Congressman Larry Kissell, as do all the folks who are helping us get started, including Christopher Schuler our director of communications, and Jarrod Hall, our deputy distiller. We formally came together in January 2014 to begin this venture. Originally, Thomas Thacker and I had made the decision to start a distillery in 2013 and later discovered that Perry Morris, who we had worked with for several years, also had an interest in distilling. So we asked him to join our partnership,” Powell says.
Thacker is from Wadesboro. As a former bartender and bar manager, “he brings a wealth of knowledge about the distilled spirits industry, and cocktail creation and service with him to our partnership,” Powell says, adding that she and Thacker share a goal of a quality American-made product that creates jobs and prosperity. “We are fans of whiskey and believe we can craft a product others can enjoy,” she says.
As for any obstacles she might have initially faced in starting what has historically been considered a man’s business, Powell says, “I’ve spent a number of years of my life working in ‘chick politics.’ I worked in the White House Women’s office, I worked on President Clinton’s Interagency Council on Women and I was director of women’s programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I’ve heard stories for years of women who were discouraged from entering fields that were traditionally dominated by men and the battles they have fought. I’m very fortunate that I haven’t met any of those obstacles myself as a distiller.
While Powell may not have been hindered by her gender, she says, “Alcohol is one of the most regulated businesses on the planet. Beyond the normal business licenses, there are numerous levels of paperwork to be completed as well as daily, monthly and quarterly reports on every action we take inside the distillery walls. The up-front costs are considerable because before you can ever file for a permit with the State or Feds you must have a facility, build a still and purchase most of your equipment.”
And the distillation process is currently taking place right here in Cabarrus County. “We knew our first choice would be an old cotton mill. Through our work in politics, we were far too aware of the toll bad trade deals had taken on North Carolina’s manufacturing sector and we wanted to make an American whiskey somewhere with a proud heritage of manufacturing. We were lucky to have found our space at the old Coleman Mill (on Main Street in Concord). The City was very helpful in guiding us through the process to ensure correct zoning, etc.,” Powell explains.
In keeping a tradition alive, Powell has become quite an aficionado with regard to the fermentation process. “The ‘moonshine,’ or white dog as some call it, is how even the fanciest scotches, bourbons and aged whiskeys start,” she says. “White whiskey has had a bad name for many years; we want to help correct that. The craft begins with the ingredients and care that goes into fermentation, distilling and, for one of our products, the aging. We are crafting a less-than-one-year aged whiskey. The young whiskeys have been gaining popularity in recent years. We think we can make a high-quality one that we can be proud to serve.”
The reason Southern Grace’s whiskey is younger is because the distillery made the decision to use 10-gallon fermentation barrels instead of the customary 53-gallon. “By using a 10-gallon barrel, we speed up that (fermentation) time dramatically and produce a very small batch that will
be barrel proofed – it will be bottled exactly as it comes out of the barrel and barrels won’t be blended with other barrels – which is very desirable to consumers,” Powell says.
“Our still and our process is hand- crafted,” she continues. “In a large distillery the alcohol is distilled thousands of gallons at a time and moved into tankers. Our still, which was built right here in Concord by D.A. Moore, is just over 100 gallons. We carefully monitor the liquor as it is distilled and use only the highest quality of the run, as opposed to a large distillery where making ‘cuts’ is impossible, and the good and the less desirable parts of the run are combined. We only bottle the premium spirits from each distillation.”
Southern Grace uses corn and barley milled here in North Carolina, monitoring the temperature and sugar content many times daily during the fermentation process to ensure that it is yielding the best product possible. Once the batch is to the partners’ liking, it will be bottled and sold. Visitors will be able to sample the spirits by the half-ounce at Southern Grace’s tasting bar, located at 20 Cabarrus Avenue in Concord.
“As the farm-to-fork movement grows in North Carolina, the still-to-store movement is not far behind,” visitnc. com says. “Catalyzed by the local initiative, micro-distilleries continue to multiply in North Carolina, crafting small-batch moonshine, vodka, gin and rum. And this time, it’s legal.”
Speaking of legal, shortly before this issue went to press, Powell informed Cabarrus Magzine that Southern Grace’s label had been approved by the State – a very important step in the process.
Initially, Southern Grace will distribute its product in the Carolinas and Louisiana, hoping to eventually expand nationally.
“We have three products,” Powell says. “Two of them will be in 750ml (a fifth) glass with a cork top, and the third is a 1.75-liter fruit-infused product in a plastic jar with a metal lid that is suitable for responsible tailgating and parties.” Bottoms up!