Southern Grace Distilleries: Now Behind Bars
Dec 01, 2016 08:30AM ● Published by Jason Huddle
In January 2015, Cabarrus Magazine featured Southern Grace Distilleries as part of its Wonder Women issue. That’s because Leanne Powell spearheaded Southern Grace in 2013 with Tom Thacker.
In the three years that have followed, Southern Grace’s moonshine – Sun Dog 130 – has won gold medals at international competitions and made it into ABC liquor stores. “We went on the shelf in North Carolina and Washington, DC, in February 2015,” Powell says. “We've been in South Carolina since August 2016.
As part of establishing their distillery, Powell and her partners had to have a brick and mortar building, a still and equipment. That operation began in the old Warren C. Coleman Mill on Main Street in Concord. Following was the opening of a tasting room on Cabarrus Avenue.
“The old Coleman mill was a great place to start our business,” Powell says. “It was affordable and gave us a place to learn and experiment. We outgrew it fast and had to rent extra space for bottles and supplies. We were looking for a new space pretty quickly. We were looking for a property that would allow all of our operations and tastings to happen in one place. We were also hoping to find a place that would attract tourism and we couldn’t have found a better place than the prison.”
That’s right, a prison. In 2011 – after 82 years – budget cuts closed Cabarrus County’s Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility on Dutch Road; the State of North Carolina then put it up for sale. Mount
Pleasant Properties LLC bought the facility this year and began renovations to the deteriorating property.
When word got out that Southern Grace was looking to relocate, Lowell and her team were courted by Mt. Pleasant Mayor Del Eudy and the Town Board. “We were looking throughout the Piedmont, but hoped to stay in Cabarrus,” Powell explains. “We loved the crazy idea of a distillery in a prison. It was secure and the building lent itself to our operations and tourism goals. We were fortunate enough to partner with Dr. Allen Dobson and Tom Earnhardt at Mt. Pleasant Properties. Now Mt. Pleasant and Cabarrus County are home of the only prison distillery in the country.”
Southern Grace is leasing approximately 20,000 square feet of the complex, including, “the old visitors check-in building and chapel, which now serve as our Visitors/Welcome Center, the original 1929 dorm that is our new barrel house and the new dorm that houses our manufacturing. By comparison, we had about 2,200 square feet in the Coleman Mill,” Powell says.
The new dorm offers about 13,300 square feet for that manufacturing, and the old dorm/barrel house about 5,000 square feet. The plexiglass windows that guards once used to monitor prisoners now serve as a viewing area for visitors. And the pews and stained glass in the 1,500-square-foot chapel have been retained for the Visitors Center.
The ability to expand production has seen Southern Grace add five whiskey products to its portfolio. “We just launched Sun Dog Pink Lemonade and it is proving to be very popular,” Lowell says. “It is a lower proof product that gives folks looking for something with a fresh, sweet taste an alternative. As with all of our products, we make a donation to charity for each bottle sold. Sun Dog Pink Lemonade benefits the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
“We had two approximately 120-gallon stills at the old location: Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. We’ve retired Mick Jagger and replaced him with the fabulous new 350-gallon Fats Domino. We will be offering more products in the coming year.”
Part of the intrigue of having a distillery inside a prison is the mystery and folklore surrounding it. Powell and her team have worked to retain the look and feel of the old prison, and the dark, empty cells and hallways have given rise to ghostly disappearances, strange sounds and echoing footsteps heard by both construction workers and staff.
This has provided Southern Grace with a true attraction, and they’re offering tours of the prison to visitors. At the conclusion of tours, visitors are invited to a whiskey tasting in the old prison segregation unit, now home to a bar.
“We are having so much fun with the tours. People seem to love being able to look behind the
scenes at both a prison and distillery in one visit,” Powell says, adding, “Behind Bars tours are offered on Fridays and Saturdays at 12:30, 2:00 and 3:30pm. We also do those tours by appointment Monday through Saturday. Prison After Dark tours begin at 7:00pm and are held once a month. They sell out fast. Check our website for date, availability and pricing.
“We have new products coming and new tours and classes that will be offered in the new year,” Powell adds. “We hope everyone will come out and visit.”
Story by: Kim Cassell
Photos Courtesy: Michael A. Anderson Photography