Inside Mount Pleasant's Southern Grace Distilleries

Inside what’s now Southern Grace Distilleries, remnants from the building’s past as a prison are left behind.

FROM BEHIND A PADLOCKED, BARBED-WIRE FENCE, the booming of a bass guitar and the clanging of electric strings echo through the air, like a party no one was invited to.

The sounds of Led Zeppelin pour over a cracked concrete basketball court, the red three-point line sun-bleached to a faded pink. Windowpanes rattle as they try to hold back the concert-volume rock music coming from inside the long brick building. Inside, there are no red solo cups or sweaty mosh pits, just rows and rows of oak barrels absorbing the vibrations of “Ramble On” as bourbon is rocked to completion. 

Music isn’t a gimmick at Southern Grace Distilleries. There are many methods distillers use to enhance bourbon, like age barrels aboard a ship so that the waves rock the bourbon, Warren Foil tells me. “Well, we’re landlocked,” he says. “So we use Led Zeppelin.” 

Sonic aging uses really loud music to vibrate the bourbon in each barrel, absorbing the charred oak flavors. “That’s not a cutesy thing,” Foil says. “It’s a vital part of having our whiskey come out the way we want it to.” 

Foil, who’s been a tour guide at the Mount Pleasant distillery since it relocated from its Concord site in 2016, lets out a hearty laugh and points to the speakers on the ground. “Ashamedly, we blew out our subwoofer. We partied too long, too loud, and blew out our equipment.”

One hundred and forty prisoners used to live inside this dorm building until the Cabarrus Correctional Center closed in 2011; early on, many cells housed bootleggers. The building was divided by two barred areas: Cell Block West and Cell Block East, both labeled with heavy black text on a white background. Prison bars covered in peeling paint bisect the signs like a warning. There are still remnants of the old regional prison that show the building’s recent past. Mirrors are built into the walls of a small, white-tiled bathroom with a yellowed flyer that reads “Wash those hands!” taped on the wall. 

The correctional center, also known as Mount Pleasant Prison, opened in 1929 during the height of Prohibition. After North Carolina passed a prison reform bill in 1925, outlawing inhumane practices like flogging and beating prisoners, the state built regional prisons like this one. Despite reforms, many early prisoners still faced harsh treatments like the hot box—a windowless isolation shed with a fire furnace and no fresh air.

Now, the site is home to over 14,000 gallons of aging bourbon and counting, an ironic transformation from a law-breaking moonshiners’ jail to a small (and legal) distillery.


(Left to right) Head distiller Sebastian Correa; Leanne Powell, CEO and co-founder; and Warren Foil, a tour guide.

THERE’S NOT A SINGLE CONVEYOR BELT at the distillery. Its award-winning Conviction bourbon is bottled and labeled by hand with the barrel number, date, and alcohol content by employees, volunteers, and Leanne Powell, the CEO and co-founder of Southern Grace.

Powell pauses from her work to say goodbye to a volunteer. “It was so good to see you,” she says, dragging out the “u.” She’s a native of the county, originally from Concord. Powell spent 30 years working in and around Washington politics, but based on her drawl, it’s hard to believe she ever left Cabarrus County.

“Bourbon is one of the few things that, by law, has to be made in the U.S.A.,” she says, explaining why she chose this industry. 

The prison employed 63 individuals and consumed more water than any other facility in the small town of nearly 2,000. So when it closed in 2011, locals felt the economic strain. The community of Mount Pleasant, 32 miles northeast of Charlotte, needed a new tenant that would use those resources and stop the economy from dwindling further. 

When the distillery moved in, a promise of tourism and jobs came with it, and since bourbon can only be American made, there’s no threat of it ever moving overseas. 


After graduating from college, Correa (top) started working at Southern Grace, creating liquors such as Conviction bourbon.

CABARRUS COUNTY STILL RUNS A COLUMN titled “Who’s in jail this week” in the local newspaper, the Independent Tribune. Here it lists, alphabetically, individuals in Concord’s Cabarrus County Jail. 

If the list were published during the 1950s, there may have been an entry for the notorious Redd Rowland. He lived across the street from the prison, making bootleg liquor with his pet monkey named Bud. 

On many occasions, local police tried to catch Rowland in the act. During one arrest, his monkey fetched a wad of cash from a hiding spot under a rug and delivered it to the officers. Rowland claimed it was his monkey’s money, not his, and got away with it. His antics eventually landed him in jail, only about “a good golf drive” from his home, Warren Foil says, sharing more history of the prison.

Distillery tours typically explain the process behind a company’s liquor (here, distilling is done by Sebastian Correa); they sometimes go into why the owners got into the industry, but rarely is a distillery surrounded by such a rich past that the tour guide becomes a pseudo-historian. 

That’s Foil’s role here. He shares stories that the brief list of names in the newspaper missed—the stories of those behind bars. The prison’s history is sometimes dark, and many claim the place is haunted, but Foil recounts the stories without filter. It’s like the Kentucky bourbon way of telling a story, based in place and unconditioned.

Those are the same qualities in Southern Grace Distilleries’ bourbon, with one exception: the barrels get a little extra help from Led Zeppelin.


Categories: Food + Drink, In Print