What! Whiskey Prison! I had no idea what the heck that could mean! I had no idea what to expect! I couldn’t imagine what whiskey had to do with prison!
At the corner of Highway 73 and Dutch Road in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina, just about 20 minutes from Charlotte, I found out exactly what going to Whiskey Prison means.
In my best Golden Girl Sophia Petrillo voice . . . . Picture It! Small Town, North Carolina 1929 . . . .
Opened in 1929 (and closed in 2011), an old prison on Dutch Road in Mount Pleasant, NC, was originally a work camp for prison road gangs. At it’s fullest, it housed about 400 low-security inmates. Long hallways and small cells. Large dormitories and a tiny, hot-box, solitary confinement shed for those that forgot to follow the rules – The hot box, a small, disciplinary outhouse that even contains an old oven to crank up the temperature just in case the temperatures cooled and got too comfortable. Large concrete dormitory buildings (added in the 80’s) that held minimum security inmates in the North Carolina heat – no air conditioning. A guard tower watching every move made on an old basketball court – the only exercise the inmates received.
With small cells and long halls the prison was considered a luxury in the early 1930s since North Carolina road chain gangs before that were kept in “Convict Cages.” Boxy, metal cages on wheels that could (and would) hold up to 20 inmates, providing an easy way to transport chain gangs and leave them locked up in the field for the night. Prisoners hated them and were packed in like animals, huddling against the elements.
Even though a prison right in the middle of a North Carolina town could be considered an eye-sore, the facility employed many locals and didn’t really become an actual eye-sore until it closed and sat vacant.
When the prison closed in 2011, the remaining prisoners were transferred to other and newer state facilities – but it seems some may have been left behind! Local stories say the vacant buildings were haunted. Keys disappeared and then, following searches, reappeared in plain sight. Phantom footsteps have been heard. Weird sounds in the night. The buildings began to fall into disrepair and when it closed, the grass became overgrown and paint began peeling off the cell bars. For a short period of time, soldiers from Fort Bragg used the buildings for training and shells littered the floors from that time. The town suffered economic losses after the closing. After all, the prison had guards and other employees that frequented area businesses. The prison was the largest contributor to the water and sewer costs for the town. Not only an eye-sore, the prison was also the cause of a small American town falling into a slump. The town’s population decreased significantly.
So what does all of this have to do with whiskey? Well, vision. The vision of a local distillery owner. The distillery, Southern Grace Distilleries, just founded in 2014, had been operating in an old textile mill in Concord. After its moonshine corn whiskey won medals at various competitions, the distillery was outgrowing it’s space and the owners wanted to expand. The old prison was the perfect option.
Part of the attraction of the old prison was the opportunity to make it a tourist destination. Think Alcatraz! The old prison chapel would be an orientation site for visitors. The old dorms would be the new home to fermentation, distilling, aging and bottling operations. The old segregation unit, where not so well behaved prisoners cooled off in single cells, would be a bar where tourists have whiskey tastings at the end of their visit. A vision!
The former prison usage as a distillery would bring a $1.5 million investment into the area and return life to what had become a strain on the state books, and yes, an eye-sore in the community. The character of the old prison, including a guard tower, basketball court, warden’s house and chapel, remain in place. A newer dorm, built in the 1980s, is now a main manufacturing area and other cell blocks are being used for distilling, fermentation, bottling and storage. A tasting room and a gift shop housed in the old solitary confinement segregation area, with two cells preserved as is. An old building is now a barreling facility offering ideal temperatures and space – a vision!
The distillery now uses most of the largest buildings of the old prison and is the very first ever whiskey prison! During minimal reconstruction (the distillery wanted to keep the original character of the prison) they found memorabilia scattered through the prison, including razor blades, shivs and shells from soldiers’ training – all of which is now on display in the visitor areas.
During my visit, we enjoyed a fabulous and delicious catered meal by local eateries in the old prisoner visitor area, “the yard”, where prisoners could meet with family and friends coming to see them. It remains mainly untouched and as it was during the days of the prison.
Visitors can go behind bars and tour the former NC prison that is now Southern Grace Distilleries to learn about the history of the prison and how award-wining whiskey is crafted. You can also taste some of their finest spirits! The tours start in the old prison chapel that has been converted into a visitors center but still showcases the pews and stained glass. From there, you will leave to tour the manufacturing area and other parts of the prison complex. Tours are available during the weekends and cost $14. The tours are not recommended for children, but visitors under 21 are allowed on the Behind Bars tour. Anyone under 21 must be accompanied by a parent or guardian and may not participate in any tasting. All children over 3 years old must have a full price ticket.
If you will be in the area, this tour is definitely one you won’t want to miss!
I was provided an all expense paid trip by Travel Media Showcase. All opinions are my own.
You may also like to read: Start Your Engines and Head to Cabarrus County, North Carolina.