I never doubted Leanne Powell.
Not for a second.
I did think she was just a bit overly, well, optimistic.
But I was terribly, horribly wrong.
Powell is the defacto warden of Whiskey Prison, aka Southern Grace Distilleries, in Mount Pleasant, North Carolina. The former Cabarrus County Correctional Center —which includes 19 structures comprising 36,332 square feet, according to a posting by the state — encompasses 22.5 acres.
Southern Grace is ready to break out in a big way.
To be fair, maybe it already has.
About a year ago, Southern Grace released its first very-small-batch-cask-strength bourbon, which it calls Conviction. Powell offered me a sample from one of the first bottlings, which came in at 102.5 proof. The whiskey was in the barrel for eight months. In that version, the nose revealed ripe cherries and hints of cinnamon and brown sugar. A sip offered hints of honey and just a touch of oak.
The distillery released its second offering in October. The single-barrel bourbon is composed of 88 percent corn and 12 percent barley. No rye, and no wheat.
The barley brought a a soft sweetness, much like an Irish whisky, especially after adding a drop of water.
The latest Conviction offering clocks in at more than 98 proof and aged more than 11 months. The nose isn’t as pronounced as the initial release, but, as the spirit wakes your palate and warms your throat, you’ll find this iteration of Conviction is unique and, in a word, special.
It smells of coffee and warm vanilla and, with a sip, finishes with soft caramel and a lingering spice. A drop of water takes it to another level, coating the tongue with a chewy, more vibrant sweet caramel and hints of brown sugar and baking spice.
This new version of Conviction was all aged in “solitary confinement” and is available in 375 ml bottles only. The bourbon is available in the Carolinas, Washington, D.C., Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Oklahoma and Louisiana.
Southern Grace, which also makes Sun Dog 130, an uncut North Carolina corn whiskey; as well as some flavored whiskies, donates part of its profits to local animal shelters and other charities.
“We made a pledge when we started Southern Grace Distilleries in 2014 that we would never bottle something we wouldn’t be proud to serve to our family and friends on our own back porch,” Powell has told me. “I believe we have stayed true to our guiding principle. We hope it is enjoyed on many a back porch.”
New American white oak barrels consume the distillery, with began with just three employees in this town of 2,ooo, has plans to expand, in regard to space and staff.
For now, the barrels rest in old dorm in the old prison, which is new again, inviting and happy. As a tour leaves a barrel room on a recent Saturday afternoon, Powell turns and cranks the volume on a receiver that supplies music for the whiskey to rest by.
Ears ring with Irish metal — the Dropkick Murphys belting out “I’m Shipping Up to Boston.”
Turns out the traditional Scottish and Irish toast works pretty well with bourbon, too.