Whiskey Prison - Southern Grace Redemption
Growing up in the city of Charlotte, all I know about Cabarrus County is that it's the home of NASCAR country, the original What-A-Burger, and The Avett Brothers. Last summer I heard about an abandoned prison being turned into a distillery that might be haunted. Booze and ghosts - sign me up! I added it to my list of places that I wanted to visit.
Southern Grace Distillery is the home of Concord’s first legally made 130-proof moonshine and is located in the heart of Cabarrus County, North Carolina. It is the first distillery in the United States to be located in a former prison. The Cabarrus Correctional Center in Mount Pleasant, NC formerly housed up to 400 inmates at a time. It operated from 1929 to 2011 when it closed, due to budget cuts.
I took my friend TJ with me and we made the 30 minute drive North of the city. As soon as we got out of the car, we both noticed really loud music. Like, REALLY loud. TJ looked at me and said "Andy Dufrain is at it again." HA! More on that later.
So how did it all begin? Well with a dog, of course.
Mia was just seven years old when she passed away from a blood disease. Her owner, Tom Thacker was grieving for his loss and began to have those "what's the meaning of life" heart-to-heart conversations with his friend and co-worker Leanne Powell. The two natives of Cabarrus County met while working for former US. Rep. Larry Kissell. Soon, they both discovered their love for whiskey, and with Tom being a bourbon aficionado, the pair decided to go for it and soon Southern Grace Distillery was born.
The two friends, along with distiller Perry Morris first opened up in 2013 in the old Warren C. Coleman Mill in Concord, built at the beginning of the 20th century. Coleman was a former slave and was the first African-American in the United States to open his own textile mill. Not long after they had been in the mill, they outgrew the space. They were in search of a location when they discovered the abandoned Cabarrus County prison. It had originally been a work camp for prison road gangs. They knew right away that this was the spot. A distillery in a prison; talk about a tourist attraction!
Southern Grace is leasing approximately 20,000 square feet of the complex from Mt. Pleasant Properties. This includes the visitors check-in building and chapel, which now serve as the Welcome Center, the original 1929 dorm that is the new barrel house and the new dorm that houses the manufacturing. By comparison, they had about 2,200 square feet in the Coleman Mill.
The prison has been renovated and they have preserved as much as possible. When we arrived, we were greeted by friendly faces and led to the chapel where we watched a 15 minute video on the history of the prison and bootlegging. The video included a few of the prison guards who had worked there. We learned that Operation Robin Sage took place here while it was abandoned, where soldiers from Fort Bragg, NC had used the facility for training.
“The expansion of Southern Grace Distilleries to Mount Pleasant is going to be very good for our area,” said Mount Pleasant Mayor Del Eudy. “Southern Grace will bring much needed tourism to our part of Cabarrus County and as they grow, more jobs.”
Before we made the walk to the barrel house, we stopped at one of the two only hot boxes left in North Carolina. What is a hot box? It's where prisoners were kept in isolation, in the dark, with the heat cranked up when they violated the rules. If you are from the South, you know how hot and humid the summers can get. Prisoners ran the risk of dying from the punishment. Don't let the picture below fool you. That door is not a normal sized door. I'm not very tall - maybe 5'7, and I could touch the ceiling.
Warren, our tour guide led us to the barrel house. This was where the loud music had been coming from. I was sure we would find a bunch of guys in there working, sampling booze and whatnot. As we walked in the brick building, the music stopped. Warren explained to us that the music was being played for the barrels of booze. Wait...what? He told us that they use a process called sonic aging, which is the process of pulsing sound waves through the booze as it’s sitting in the barrel, agitating it and increasing the frequency of contact between the hooch and the barrel. So that LOUD Led Zeppelin we heard playing was for the barrels. Want to see what else they play for the booze? Go HERE
Sun Dog 130 is a small batch white whiskey that has won five awards, including the Gold at the San Diego Spirits Competition, Gold at the Fifty Best American Whiskeys Competition and Silver in Louisville, KY at the American Craft Spirits Competition. The whiskey bottle has a picture of Mia on it and a portion of the proceeds from every bottle sold is donated to a local animal shelter.
Sun Dog Pink Lemonade is a sweeter alternative and is proving to be very popular. As with all of their products, they make a donation to charity for each bottle sold. Sun Dog Pink Lemonade benefits the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
Sun Dog Apple Dumplin' is a 45 proof corn whiskey made with fruit juice. It won a silver medal in New Orleans at the American Whiskey and Bourbon Competition. For every bottle they sell they make a contribution to Habitat for Humanity.
Sun Dog Habanero is an 80 proof habanero flavored whiskey. For every bottle they sell they make a contribution to an organization that benefits firefighters.
Zero Dark Thirty is a white whiskey at a lower proof and bottled to honor those who serve. $1 from every bottle sold is donated to a charity to benefit those who serve and their families.
Conviction is the first bourbon to ever be (legally) aged behind bars. The mash bill is 88% corn and 12% malted barley.
Of course I inquired about who their most "famous" prisoner was. It was a man by the name of Redd Rowland who spent time in the facility in the 1950s. He was a local known bootlegger, who also happened to have a pet monkey. Interesting. Nothing like a pet monkey to draw attention to yourself when you are running an illegal operation. I had so many questions about Redd.
Redd was born in 1924 and he worked at the Kindley Cotton Mill (opened in 1896) that was located at 400 W. Franklin Street. He was often seen at the Cabarrus County Fair with his pet monkey that would do tricks for tips. The Cabarrus County Sheriff was onto Redd and his illegal moonshining operation and eventually seized the white lightning. The police never did find his distillery, but arrested him after his monkey produced a handful of cash. But get this ... Redd somehow beat the charges by convincing the judge that the cash was the monkey's earnings!
I'm as baffled as you.
Redd was later busted again for bootlegging and was tried before a less compliant judge and he was convicted. Redd took comfort in being confined at the Cabarrus Correctional Center -- the state facility right across from what is now Dutch Road in Mount Pleasant where he lived. The more research I did on Redd, the more stories I discovered. I even spoke with his daughter Jennie. Overall, the stories I heard were that Red Rowland was someone who was well known and liked in Mt. Pleasant. He was known to dress up as Santa Claus and entertain the neighborhood kids. He was a pretty likeable guy.
Oh! And they called him Redd because....he had bright red hair.
Is the prison haunted?
Warren told us stories have been reported of keys missing and then mysterously reappearing, lights flickering and hearing unexplanined footsteps. If anywhere was going to have a ghost, he said it would most likely be in the Hot Box. That's a spirit I would not want to encounter. I didn't get any creepy vibes, but I'd definitly not want to be locked in there alone, at night. I'm not kidding; they lock the gates behind you. Federal law requires distilleries have a secure perimeter.
The tour ended with a visit to the dining hall where we were given samples of Sun Dog, Zero Dark Thirty and Conviction. Find out if your local liquor store carries it HERE. If they do not, request it.
And yes, Scott and Seth Avett are fans. They sing about making it from Fisher Road (to Hollywood) where they grey up, 3 miles down the road. The brothers stopped by recently to try out their hometown booze.
Are you interested in taking the prison tour? Southern Grace is located at 130 Dutch Road at the corner of Highway 73 in Mount Pleasant. Dogs are welcomed too, which I thought was pretty cool. Contact Leanne@southergracedistilleries.com or visit HERE Also, be sure to check Groupon for deals.
Thank you to LeAnn and Warren and Emily and everyone else who we met on the tour. We really enjoyed the tour as well as the liquor. I even picked up some locally made dog treats they were selling in the prison store for my dog Lucky. He gobbled them right up!