You might call her the warden of whiskey. Leanne Powell is the president of Southern Grace Distilleries – the first distillery brewing bourbon behind bars. “People are very curious about prisons, and they love that we are in a prison,” Leanne says. She runs Whiskey Prison in Mount Pleasant, NC. It is a 22-and-a-half-acre property that was home to the Cabarrus Correctional Facility until 2011. The distillery uses one of the old dorms for manufacturing, another for aging, and the rest of the buildings are popular for tours.

Leanne didn’t always make her money behind bars. She actually worked in politics for almost 30 years before opening Southern Grace — including a stint in the White House and a time as a Congressman’s Chief of Staff. That’s why she says it’s important to her that the distillery is creating jobs in a town that’s struggled.

Southern Grace Distilleries is embracing their new space, which just happens to be in the old Cabarrus Correctional Facility, which closed in 2011. Image: Michael A Anderson Photography

After several textile mills closed in Mount Pleasant (along with the massive prison), the town desperately needed water customers, and town leaders were looking for manufacturing businesses that would use a lot of water. “They asked us to look at some of the old mill sites, and then they said they had a crazy idea. They showed us the prison, and I knew that was where we needed to be. It was perfect to allow us to age bourbon in the traditional way.”

That’s when Leanne decided to move from the old textile mill where they originally opened in Concord in 2014, to the prison. It was a smart move. The number of visitors to Whiskey Prison just keeps going up.“It has been amazing! Our community has been so supportive. We have had visitors from all over the world,” Leanne shares.

A year ago they started monthly Prison After Dark Tours, and every one of them has sold out ahead of time. Their upcoming (first-ever) Halloween Tours have also been sold out for weeks. “We are so fortunate,” Leanne says. “We have folks who want to come back and bring others, so we’ve started a Repeat Offenders program where a visitor pays $10 after their first tour for the card, and they can then come back for Behind the Bars tours as often as they like for the next 24 months.”

They just launched a brand-new bourbon called “Conviction.” It’s the first bourbon ever legally aged behind bars. Reviews have called it “remarkably smooth and complex.” Like the rest of their spirits, it’s now being sold on shelves across the Carolinas and in Washington D.C.

Barrels of whiskey aging away behind bars | Image: Facebook
Barrels of whiskey aging away behind bars | Image: Facebook
Where the magic happens: the dorms (shown here is Dorm D) that are used for manufacturing and aging.

Each of their whiskeys has a cool name — and a cool cause associated with it. There’s Sun Dog 130 Small Batch Whiskey, the sales of which benefit animal shelters. Then there’s Zero Dark 130, which is dedicated to military families. They make a contribution for every bottle sold of that one to the NC USO. There’s also Sun Dog Pink Lemonade. For that one they donate to a breast cancer research organization. And they make a contribution to Habitat for Humanity for every bottle sold of Sun Dog Apple Dumpling.

Leanne explains, “I believe in giving back. I truly believe a rising tide lifts all boats.”

And they’re not done yet — Leanne says they have big plans for the future. “We will have a straight bourbon in another year or so, and we will be debuting Sun Dog Habanero soon. We want to grow our production and increase our workforce.”

Behind Bars Tours are offered Fridays and Saturdays, and private tours are offered Monday through Thursday by appointment from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. To schedule a tour, call (704) 622-6413, and learn more about Southern Grace Distilleries at


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About the Author
Michelle Boudin