Charlotte’s newest distillery has a history rooted deep in the city’s prohibition-era bootlegger scene and it’s almost too cool to believe.
Siblings Dell and Velda Ratcliffe and Velda’s husband Scott McClure have been hard at work on Seven Jars Distillery for about three years now but it’s been a lifetime in the making. The wild story, told to me on a rapid-fire tour of the space after an unannounced drive by, goes something like this…
At the height of prohibition in North Carolina (which took effect a full decade before the ratification of the 18th Amendment imposed the restriction nationwide), The Flamingo Supper Club was the place to party in Charlotte. This was thanks in large part to the fact that owner Frank O. Ratcliffe (Dell and Velda’s dad) was a notorious bootlegger known for selling booze to social Charlotteans when others couldn’t and wouldn’t.
Ratcliffe’s club was located at the corner of N. Tryon Street and W. 6th Street at what is today the Discovery Place campus. The Flamingo was known for live music, gambling and (thanks to Ratcliffe) plenty of illegal liquor transported up from Florida on flatbed trucks covered in oranges.
As the story goes, Ratcliffe and his club were so popular the police chief stationed officers at the corner to direct patrons to the door. “It was like the Suite of its time,” said McClure, comparing The Flamingo to a popular nightclub at the EpiCentre.
Ratcliffe and his nightclub are the stuff of movie legend. If being a successful bootlegger during prohibition in the south isn’t enough, it’s also worth noting that he fell madly in love with a singer he’d booked to perform at the club, married her and started his family.
Like all good things, The Flamingo came to an end. It was immediately succeeded by House of Steaks which opened in 1958 and eventually moved to South Boulevard where it is known today as Beef ‘n’ Bottle, another Charlotte institution.
After that, the former Flamingo building was condemned in 1978 and the family sold the land to the city to develop Discovery Place. But Ratcliffe never saw that happen.
The infamous bootlegger died in 1977 but not before leaving a legacy for his kids to dig up. Literally. He buried a surprise and the key to unlocking much of his past on the family’s golf course along Mallard Creek.
It took them 15 years to find it but they eventually unearthed a collection of seven mason jars stuffed with recipes from old moonshiners. Those recipes, says McClure, will be the base formula used at the family’s forthcoming distillery, aptly named Seven Jars Distillery.
The Ratcliffes are targeting a May 2016 opening of the distillery, which will produce vodka and rum to start. Bourbon will be on the horizon two to four years out and McClure says they’d also like to make pickleback, a mix of pickle juice and whiskey that he swears is good. If it’s anything like a dirty martini, I’m in.
The distillery will feature a presentation room where visitors can learn about the family’s wild history and how Seven Jars came to be. Next door, they also run a beer and wine making supply shop with everything you need to start your own home brewing operation.
And if you’re not sure where to start or just can’t wait for the distillery to open, the Ratcliffes have you covered. They teach wine making classes every Saturday and, in true bootlegger style, you can only sign up for those classes by calling (704) 919-0278 to see if there are any spots available (each class accommodates 8 – 10 people).
Unfortunately, Seven Jars can’t sell their goods just yet but they’re nearing the end of the trail of paperwork that will give them a green light to open the distillery. You’ll find them at 6148 Brookshire Boulevard and the shop is open Monday – Saturday 12 – 6 p.m.
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