Work Life

Would you go to a distillery housed in an old prison? Southern Grace hopes so

The Cabarrus Correctional Facility in Mount Pleasant opened in 1929 and closed in late 2011. Five years later, the grass is overgrown, paint is peeling off the cell bars and shells litter the floor from when soldiers from Fort Bragg used the prison for training.

In a few months, this will be the home of Southern Grace Distilleries.

The distillery, which was founded March of 2014 and first hit shelves February 2015, has been housed in an old textile mill in Concord. Its moonshine corn whiskey has won medals at competitions like the American Craft Spirits Competition.

It outgrew that space, though, and the owners have been looking for a place to expand and to start barrel aging whiskey. The prison was the perfect option.

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“We really wanted to stay in Cabarrus County and the folks in Mount Pleasant showed us this and we just fell in love with it,” said Leanne Powell. “We knew that when we moved we wanted to be a tourist destination.”

I visited the prison in broad daylight, but the long, dark hallway and abandoned cells still made me feel unsettled. Stories linger in the walls and darkness lurks in the corners of the old prison.

The folks at the distillery will clean the place up some, but the character of the old prison — guard tower, basketball court and all — will remain.

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Southern Grace officially took over the prison May 31. A group of developers, Mt. Pleasant Properties, bought the whole 22.5 acres and will be landlords for Southern Grace and their 6.5 acres.

Southern Grace hopes to be in the new space, at the corner of Highway 73 and Dutch Road in Mount Pleasant, by Labor Day and have it ready for visitors by October.

The distillery will primarily use three buildings on the campus:

The new dorm

The new dorm, built in the 80s, measures about 13,400 square feet and will be the main manufacturing area with four cell blocks being used for distilling, fermentation, bottling and storage.

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Down a hallway in the new dorm there will be a tasting room. The gift shop will live in solitary confinement — or, as the prison called it, “segregation.” Two of the cells will be preserved as is and the others will be converted to display merchandise.

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“Right now we don’t have an operating tasting room just because of our size and everything, so it will be nice to get a tasting room license and be able to bring folks in,” Powell said.

The old dorm

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This structure, at 4,700 square feet, will become the barreling facility. Southern Grace currently doesn’t have the space to barrel, so this will allow it to offer new products.

“The way that you get your character is not just from the barrel but by the temperatures,” Powell said. “We’re going to take all this ceiling out and go up to the original rafters because when it’s cold we want it to feel cold in here, when it’s hot you want it to be hot. So that’s what helps the liquor move in and out of the wood.”

The chapel

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This will be converted into a visitors center, pews, stained glass and all. From there, visitors will leave to tour the manufacturing area and other parts of the prison complex.

Powell said they will be doing minimal work inside in order to keep the character of the place. They’ll clean, install some bathrooms, add security and clean up the outside.

“I know it looks a disaster right now, but it really is so well suited for what we’re doing,” said Powell. She and head distiller/COO Thomas Thacker both used to work for Congressman Larry Kissell.

“There’s a prison in Tennessee that folks are talking about making into a distillery, but they’ve been working on it, oh my goodness, 3 or 4 years and they still aren’t licensed and they don’t have a product yet. So I’m 99.9 percent sure we’ll be the first in the nation.”

Photos: Michael A. Anderson Photography; Corey Inscoe

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