SOUTHERN GRACE DISTILLERIES
This is a great time for whiskey. Craft distillers are offering spirits that defy convention, and the popularity of the beverage is growing exponentially. Rather often these days I read or hear about "excellent" whiskey coming out of New York, or Boston or some other major metropolitan area, at which point I mumble to myself "Well isn’t that special?". If you hail from the Southern Appalachians, you need no further explanation, so take a peek at one of THE COOLEST Distilleries on the planet.
Southern Grace Distilleries. INC (AKA Whiskey Prison)
is an easy drive from downtown Charlotte, NC and it’s a fine early summer day when I pull up to a compound surrounded by high fencing and Constantine wire. It looks like I’m in the right place. Sebastian Correa, the Assistant Distiller, unlocks and opens the gate for me wearing a big smile on his face.“Welcome to Whiskey Prison”. Yup, I’m definitely in the correct place. The building we enter dates back to the early 1970s (The original dormitory located about 50 yards away was built in 1929 now houses the bourbon barrels.) The distilling room and everything else associated with Southern Grace Distillers is set up and housed on the entire grounds of an old minimum security prison.
The closer we get to the distilling room, the louder the THUMP sound becomes. Sebastian notes my facial expression and introduces me to the stars of distilling at Whiskey prison: Keith Richards - Keith holds about one hundred to one hundred and ten gallons of mash each run and then Keith's partner, Fats Domino - Fats holds three hundred to three hundred and fifty gallons. This "really old school system- Sebastian” uses Thump Kegs. A traditional set up you might find in someone’s backyard or way back in the holler, the thump kegs each create essentially another distillation. What does that mean? Well, with two thump kegs and a pot Southern Grace Distilleries produces a triple distillation each run.
Southern Grace puts liquor from the previous day’s run that was lower proof/lower quality; which wasn’t good enough quality to bottle, into the next day’s run. The short version of thump keg distilling is:
The liquor from the previous day’s run is placed in the thumper.
It begins to boil, which causes a visual and audible “thumping” - nothing mechanical inside the thumper, merely the pressure from the boil creates the THUMP.
The old timers often referred to the thump kegs as “doublers” because they believed the process doubled the proof of the alcohol.
Wonderfully, every bit of the distilling equipment is made locally or regionally. The stainless steel is made in Concord, NC by D.A. Moore Corporation while the copper is all made in WNC, at Appalachian Metal Works located in Candler.
The distilling room once housed approximately sixty men in bunk beds. Sebastian stops before we leave the distilling room to point out some wooden blocks with peg holes and associated numbers. “I took all of these blocks and other pieces of wood and created that great stand for the still - yup, they used to be pegs for the prisoners to hang their coats. We're all about repurposing what was left in the buildings.”
The prison is composed of four blocks, and they have kept the original signage for each dorm, and I don’t mind telling you, this tour is turning out to be slightly creepy yet tremendously cool at the same time! We enter what is now the Fermentation Wing. The room is noticeably much cooler due to the climate control supporting the yeast for better fermentation, but the aromatic overload of yeast conjures visions of homemade bread - yum. Here’s where the term “small batch” comes into play as Sebastian tells me that they ferment "really small" batches - about forty gallons in each container. I point out what looks to be something out of a 1960's SciFi movie when Sebastian [laughing] exclaims, “That was an old sink used by the prisoners we converted into a water heater we now use for our mash. See? We repurpose everything we can.”
Sebastian mentions briefly how much space they now have compared to the previous location. Huh? Previous location? “Sebastian, how did the need for more space morph into let’s see if we can relocate to a prison?” The story goes that the owners knew they needed to expand, and the people of Mount Pleasant invited them to look around at all of the properties in the town. The Mayor, funny enough, drove a church bus carrying the Southern Grace Distilleries crew around the area showing them several properties. Once the bus arrived at 130 Dutch Road - site of the prison - the distillery team experienced immediate serendipity. Their first and most popular product is named Sun Dog 130 - so it follows that this MUST be the new location because it is clearly a sign.
Clear Your Schedule
Equal parts cranberry juice and lemonade 1.5 ounces of Sun Dog 130 over ice and mint. Finish with a squeeze of lime juice and enjoy.
TOURS, TASTING, EVENTS - SO MUCH TO DO!
Next we exit the old dorm and begin walking toward adjacent grounds and buildings when something glinting in the corner of my eye catches my attention. It is a tiny, white, cement block building with a chimney and metal roof. Sebastian breaks my spell saying “that’s the Hot Box” Wow! Cool Hand Luke…are you in there? If you were too “bad” for solitary confinement, you received an all expenses paid trip straight to the Hot Box - red glowing wood stove included just for you. I had to duck my head to enter the confined interior of the Hot Box and quickly noted that on this early summer day (the wood stove lay dormant) the heat retained in the Hot Box was extraordinarily oppressive. Let your imagination run wild on that for a moment.
AFTER CLOSING THE PRISON IN 2011: It was used by the US Special Forces for training. Some employees have loved ones serving or who served in the military and therefore have created a tribute to our military. A must see when touring the distillery.
THE LARGEST MOONSHINING STILL IN NC: Discovered about 10 miles down the road. It was buried in the back of someone’s yard and was estimated to hold approximately 1,000 gallons.
FOOD TRUCK FRIDAYS held the 2nd Friday of every month, and each is a little different. Note: Plans for a live music stage are underway with the expectation of appearing shortly.
VOLUNTEERS FOR BOTTLING: Make sure to watch the announcement on the website for future bottling dates. How in the world does the distillery bottle so much product in a short amount of time? The Whiskey Prison merely puts out the call for help (maybe a Bat Sign like the old Batman TV Show?) and small batch, craft spirit lovers jump at the chance.
A BUSINESS THAT CARES: a portion of all proceeds from sales go to various charities to include but not limited to: Wounded Warriors, Animal Shelters, Breast Cancer Research, and Habitat for Humanity.
THE TASTING ROOM: Is the only tasting room in the United States located in Solitary Confinement. What's that you ask? Oh, trust me, it's authentic. Finally! We enter the Tasting Room, and the happiness I feel after a taste of Sun Dog 130 helps me to realize that solitary confinement and whiskey tasting just seem to go together like milk and cookies…okay, maybe that’s not the best analogy, but you get the point. I considered going into detail about all of the various spirits Southern Grace offers, but then where’s the fun in that? Whiskey Prison truly is an experience you MUST have for yourself - I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
- To be called bourbon, a distiller MUST use American white oak barrels that have been charred on the inside for the aging process; furthermore, those barrels may not be used again.
- The bourbon barrels have to be made from wood located in the northern US, why? The simple answer is that the region must be cold enough that no pesticides are applied to the trees. When it comes to bourbon, American Oak is king.
- Bung Hole - Just for clarification, the hole in the bourbon barrel is known as the “bung hole” while the stopper is named the “bung."
- 10 & 15 gallon barrels - The smaller the barrel, the faster the whiskey ages. There is also a better ratio of whiskey contacting the wood. Translation - aging the whiskey in the 10-gallon barrels accelerates the process four times faster, which allows the distillery to move product much faster.
- Straight Bourbon - must age for a minimum of two (2) years. A few have been selected to age at five (5) and ten (10) year intervals - watch out Pappy VanWinkle.