Lonely Planet Writer

An eerie prison is now home to a craft distillery open to visitors in North Carolina

The Mount Pleasant’s Cabarrus Correctional Center  in North Carolina stopped housing inmates in 2011, but its creepy cells are occupied once more, now by an award-winning whisky company.

whiskey distillery prison
The old four-cell block prison where whiskey is distilled. Image by Southern Grace Distilleries

“When we arrive here to work each day we have to unlock a barbed wire fence gate and we walk into an old four-cell block prison where we distill our whiskey,” said Leanne Powell the president of Southern Grace Distilleries. “It can be eerie, especially late at night,” she explained, “all of the original prison bars are still here, including the solitary confinement cells.”

The prison dorm has been converted into a barrelhouse. Image by Michael A. Anderson Photography

The prison formerly housed up to 400 inmates at a time, now the distillery runs regular tours of part of the 21 acre grounds, accompanied by whisky tastings. Visitors check in at a guardhouse, do mug shots, and then take a seat in the old prison chapel – where they watch a film with former prison guards, which tell the story of the facility.

The Behind Bars Whiskey Prison Tour has become very popular. Image by Southern Grace Distilleries

After the movie, guests go beyond the barbed wire fence to the old hot box – the old dorm that held prisoners from 1929 until 2011. Southern Grace Distilleries has converted the dorm into a barrelhouse, where they age their Conviction Small Batch Bourbon. Other sites include the ‘new’ dorm (built in 1987), a four-cell block prison that now doubles as a distillery, plus solitary confinement, where guests get to sample the whiskeys.

The facility stopped housing inmates in 2011. Image by Southern Grace Distilleries

“We often get visits from people who say, ‘I used to live here,’” explained Powell. “We’ve also had a number of children of former moonshiners visit, their parents once did time here and they always express how incredulous their fathers would be if they could only see the place.”

Initially, the correctional facility was used to house chain gangs, and those convicted of anything short of a capitol crime. Later, it became a minimum security facility and folks did time here for everything from narcotics to murder. The more serious offenders were often moved here after good behavior at a maximum or medium security facility. Now the premises houses more than 7,000 gallons of aging bourbon, Southern Grace Distilleries bottles 70-150 bottles here weekly.

The Behind Bars Whiskey Prison Tour runs three times every Friday and Saturday, and costs $14 per person, to book visit here.