Day trip: Take this distillery tour that starts with getting locked in an old prison

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Nothing spices up a weekend like taking a distillery tour that starts with getting locked in an old prison.

I recently took my first day trip to Southern Grace Distillery, a former prison turned distillery in Mt. Pleasant, NC. This space was originally home to the Cabarrus Correctional Facility, which opened in 1929 and closed in late 2011. Southern Grace started in 2014 at a Concord location, and its moonshine corn whiskey has already won awards. They turned to this prison space in 2016 to expand and to start barrel aging whiskey.

Here are a few things to know before you check the place out:

How much does the tour cost?

Tours start at $14 and include a tasting of four whiskeys. You can book the tours online here.

Where is it located?

130 Dutch Road, Mt. Pleasant, NC

How far away is it?

From uptown Charlotte, it’s roughly 45 minutes by car (approximately 35 miles).

And my tour begins …

Start to finish, the tour lasted about an hour, but plan to arrive five to 10 minutes ahead of your scheduled tour time to allow time to check in at the guard station.

We checked in and were escorted to the prison church to wait for the tour. While we waited for all of the guests to arrive, the tour guide welcomed us to walk around the church, take our own mug shots and strike a pose behind bars.

We obviously went for the nervous laughter approach – because prison.

Once all the guests arrived, the guide showed a 10-minute video detailing some of the history of the prison and Southern Grace before we were escorted inside the locked and barb-wire fence.

Then the tour guide proceeded to lock us in. Comforting.

The guide showed us around the grounds, while giving us more history on the prison and the distillery. He explained how the alcohol is fermented and distilled, including the types of barrels they use and that a lot of the materials are locally sourced.

First stop: The hot-box

The hot-box is where prisoners were locked up in solitary confinement, before the addition was added to the prison in the late 1980s. It was a tiny building that would reach a crazy temperature in order to make inmates as uncomfortable as possible. People would spend as many as 30 days in the “box.”

The “hot-box” is now used as a place to store whiskey barrels. 

Second stop: The old dorm

The next stop on the tour was the old dorm and the barrel room, where the whiskey is left to age. It’s impossible to miss due to the loud, booming music pouring out of its walls. At first, I thought there was a party going on, but the music is actually used to shake up and move around the whiskey. The vibrations from the bass aid in the fermentation process.

You can even listen to the music playing in the barrel room on this Spotify playlist.

Third stop: The new dorm

The new dorm is where the distilling and packaging takes place.

I couldn’t help but think to myself that it looked a lot like the set of “Orange is the New Black.”

Last stop: Solitary confinement

The prison experience is rounded out with a tasting at the end of the tour, which takes place in solitary confinement. When they showed us the cells the prisoners lived in, it gave an entirely new meaning to alone time.

Then it was time for the moment we’d all been waiting for – the tasting.

The tasting consisted of four different whiskeys and bourbons. I’m not one to order either drink, but I found two of them pretty tasty: One that was made with pink lemonade and another made with apples and cinnamon. The corn whiskey and bourbon were less pleasing to my palate.

After the tasting, you can access a gift shop where you can purchase their whiskey and bourbon to enjoy at home, as well as miscellaneous prison and distillery souvenirs. Their products range from Conviction, a hand-crafted small batch bourbon whiskey, to Zero Dark 130, a North Carolina corn whiskey.

Then you get escorted back through gate to head home.

The verdict: This is a fun way to explore a slice of local history while learning a thing or two about whiskey. Plus, where else will you have the opportunity to drink behind bars?

Southern Grace Distilleries: 130 Dutch Road, Mt. Pleasant, NC

Photos: Danielle Doolen

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