A Night in Whiskey Prison

by Michael Satterfield

Just outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, the small town of Mt. Pleasant, home to about 1,600 people, The Avett Brothers, and a State Prison that closed down in 2011. Like many small towns industries that once thrived shut down, (who needs three grist mills anyways) it was in decline. With a fairly empty downtown, a shrinking population, and a now-empty 22-acre prison complex the town's prospects were grim. That is until Leanna Powell took a leap of faith and leased the prison for her growing distillery, she needed more space and the prison had plenty with 14 empty buildings.

Southern Grace Distillery was founded in 2014 in Concord, NC where they bottled their popular Sun Dog Whiskey, which comes in a number of varieties, including Pink Lemonade, Habanero, and Apple Dumplin'. They moved to the prison property in 2016 and began producing their 'Conviction' small-batch Bourbon Whiskey. It turns out that an old prison is the perfect setting for a distillery and it creates a unique experience for guests who come to tour the property.

Tours begin in the former chapel, where you can get your mug shot taken and learn a little more about the prison's history. Headed out of the chapel you walk towards the prison, past an old guard tower, and into the still room which was part of the former mess hall and kitchen. From the still room, we head to the dorms where the bunk beds have been replaced by whiskey barrels, their signature bourbon is aged for two years, using what is called sonic aging. They blast rock music at the barrels to send vibrations through the barrels that they claim improves the aging process. Their "Hot Box" Conviction bourbon is aged in even smaller batches in the prison's old solitary confinement box out in the prison yard. 

Our tour ended with a tasting in the prisons solitary confinement wing, where I was able to sample all of the different flavors that the distillery has to offer. I am pretty fairly new to whiskey but I found all of their varieties smooth and their flavored options were excellent, the Sun Dog Pink Lemonade is the perfect drink for summer in the South.

Don't let the touristy nature of the Whiskey Prison fool you, the team at Southern Grace is serious about their craft, taking home gold medals from the Micro Liquor Awards, Fifty Best Bourbon Competition, Berlin International Spirits Competition, and winning the Best Bourbon Under 4 Years at the New Orleans Bourbon Festival.

Mt. Pleasent is just 20 minutes outside of Charlotte, making it an easy day trip. Tours are for guests over 21 and include a complimentary tasting, those under 21 are allowed, but must be accompanied by someone over 21 and all members of the party over 2-years-old require a ticket. Tour prices start at $14 each, but they do offer several special events including Friday the 13th and Holloween after-hours tours, where you might see one of the many ghosts they claim haunt the prison.

If you want to get more hands-on and learn about the distilling process you can sign up for their three-hour Distilling Experience Tour where you will join the staff and learn the process of running a still and catch, evaluating the whiskey, and making cuts for barrels. The cost of the experience is $150 per person and includes a Southern Grace tee shirt and tasting glasses.

This is a great add-on experience if you are planning on visiting Charlotte for a NASCAR race or Carowinds or just a road tripper like me cruising through the back roads of the South. For more info, to plan a trip, or to find a Southern Grace retailer near you visit SouthernGraceDistilleries.com.