Southern Grace Distilleries plans to expand into the old Cabarrus Correctional Facility in Mount Pleasant, which opened in 1929 and closed in 2011. Corey Inscoe cinscoe@charlotteobserver.com
Southern Grace Distilleries plans to expand into the old Cabarrus Correctional Facility in Mount Pleasant, which opened in 1929 and closed in 2011. Corey Inscoe cinscoe@charlotteobserver.com

Mark Washburn

Old ghosts, new whiskey are the future for abandoned prison

August 12, 2016 10:25 AM

Mount Pleasant

Our story of how a haunted prison gets turned into a whiskey distillery begins, as all good stories do, with a dog.

Her name was Mia, a mutt of uncertain pedigree. She was the beloved companion of Tom Thacker.

When Mia died of blood disease at the young age of 7 in 2013, it led to one of those heart-to-heart, what’s life about and what are we doing here talks between Thacker and his friend and work colleague Leanne Powell.

They had worked together in the office of Rep. Larry Kissell until the 8th District Democrat was defeated in 2012. They went on to consulting jobs together.

Thacker is a bourbon aficionado. He really wanted to try his hand at distilling. So after Mia’s death, they decided to give it a try.

Their first bottle of Sun Dog 130 corn whiskey hit the shelves in February 2015. A homegrown craft whiskey, it filled a niche.

Soon they were outgrowing their home in the old Warren C. Coleman Mill in Concord, built at the beginning of the 20th century. Coleman, a former slave, was the first African-American in the United States to open his own textile mill.

Mount Pleasant, just east of Concord, has suffered economic losses and was looking for new businesses to replace the two mills that had closed.

Development folks there were driving Thacker and Powell around in a church bus, showing them possible relocation spots, when they said, “We also have a crazy idea for you” and pulled up in front of Cabarrus Correctional Center.

Opened in 1929 and closed in 2011, the old prison on Dutch Road was originally a work camp for prison road gangs. It housed about 400 low-security inmates in its last days.

“I loved it the minute I saw it,” says Powell, 48. “It was genius.”

Lots of open space for manufacturing, nearly five acres inside a well-maintained fence and excellent security made it an attractive site for a distillery. With help from the development people and Mount Pleasant Properties, the old clink was purchased for $350,000 from the state.

Southern Grace Distilleries is now renovating the place and plans to move in on Sept. 1. They employ eight people now and hope to expand.

Part of the romance of the place, if you can call it that, is the opportunity to make it a tourist destination. Alcatraz does well, after all. And Southern Grace is not just an old creaky prison, it will also have a vibrant whiskey business going.

Cabarrus Correctional’s old chapel will be a orientation site for visitors. They can take selfies there behind prison bars.

Old dorms will be home to fermentation, distilling, aging and bottling operations. And in the old segregation unit where ruffians cooled off in single cells for their misdeeds, a bar is going in where tourists can have whiskey tastings at the conclusion of their tours.

They have no plans yet for the old guard towers or the “hot box,” a disciplinary outhouse that harkens to the “Cool Hand Luke” days. There’s an old oven in there to crank up the temperature if things got too temperate.

Any clanky old compound like Cabarrus Correctional has its share of lore. If you tell the workers there that spirits aren’t restricted to the aging barrels, you will get no argument, even from those who don’t believe in ghosts.

Keys have disappeared and then, following rigorous searches, reappeared in plain sight. Phantom footsteps have been heard. Weird sounds in the night. That sort of thing.

Sun Dog 130, the distillery’s corn whiskey brand, has won some awards at national craft competitions. It’s old-school brewed.

Thacker, 51, and Powell like to say that if an old moonshiner materialized from the past, he’d be able to step right in and go to work on the still, except maybe for the laptop computer that keeps track of things.

If you ever want to try some, slip by the ABC store. Park in back as usual, dart in and find the whiskey department.

Sun Dog won’t be hard to find. Just look for the bottle with Mia on the label.

Prison memories?

Southern Grace Distilleries is trying to collect memories of Cabarrus Correctional from former inmates, correctional officers and other workers. They will be incorporated into historical displays at the distillery. Contact leannepowell@gmail.com or go to www.southerngracedistilleries.com.

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