With bars and breweries on every corner of Charlotte today, it’s easy to forget that a century ago, the city was in the midst of Prohibition.
The state of North Carolina was following a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, though moonshiners and bootleggers made sure booze still found its way in.
“Runners” delivered illegal liquor in highly modified Ford Model A cars, often winding through city streets and country roads with police or federal agents in hot pursuit. They were sharp drivers whose souped-up cars laid the ground for auto racing and eventually NASCAR.
Among those involved in Charlotte’s scene was notorious bootlegger Frank Ratcliffe, described as a handsome man with a quick smile who got his start running liquor with his brothers for their father.
Today, his family carries on his legacy, though legally, through their alcohol production business, Seven Jars Distillery, in northwest Charlotte.
Open since 2014, Seven Jars makes and sells bourbon, vodka, whiskey and rum using secret recipes and knowledge passed down by Ratcliffe. The company’s spirits, along with beer and wine made by the Seven Jars team, are available at the distillery on Brookshire Boulevard, in local ABC stores, online and in some grocery stores.
Though rooted in an old family secret, the story behind Seven Jars Distillery is more than a family’s nod to their former patriarch’s illicit dealings — it’s a tale of relatively unknown Charlotte history.
Dry but still thirsty
When the 18th Amendment enacting prohibition was repealed in 1933, major distilleries across the country reopened and began ramping up production.
However, North Carolina remained a dry state, meaning alcohol was still illegal.
As a result, demand for Frank Ratcliffe’s liquor delivery services skyrocketed, according to Scott McClure, Ratcliffe’s son-in-law and head distiller at Seven Jars. Ratcliffe purchased his inventory in states like Florida, New York and Connecticut, then transported it to Charlotte in disguised shipments on large trucks.
Once in Charlotte, it was delivered to “liquor houses” in modified Model A Fords.
“It was completely legal to buy liquor in Florida,” McClure said. “The illegal part was putting it in the back of a truck, surrounding the truck with oranges, and then bringing it back to Charlotte, North Carolina.”
By 1937, state government had established an Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) system to regulate the manufacture, distribution and sale of alcohol, effectively ending Prohibition in North Carolina.
State-controlled ABC stores opened and Ratcliffe stopped his delivery business to open a nightclub on West 6th Street in Uptown, where Discovery Place is today.
Initially known as the Friendly City Club but later renamed The Flamingo Club, it was a fixture of Charlotte nightlife that featured live entertainment and a casino on the second floor. For Ratcliffe, it served as a networking hub for his various side hustles.
“When Frank ran the club downstairs, he didn’t necessarily care whether or not he made money in the club, because he had all these other businesses,” McClure said. “And he needed the judges and the lawyers and the politicians to do business with him in other areas.”
It was there that Ratcliffe fell in love with a young singer named Velma Corey, whom he eventually married.
“The mob and the money and gambling and all that stuff is fun to talk about, but the real story here was the love affair between Frank and Velma,” McClure said.
As the legend goes, Ratcliffe told Velma he didn’t want her singing in the clubs anymore. In response, Velma told Ratcliffe to clean up his act — no more “cat-tailing around” or illegal gambling — so they could raise a family.
“And from that point on, Frank got rid of all of his illegal friends, he got out of all the illegal businesses and started operating by the rule of the law, because he loved that woman,” McClure said.
Finding seven jars
Frank and Velma Ratcliffe went on to have four children and lived a quiet, law-abiding life.
Their main family business was a golf course that Ratcliffe built along Mallard Creek, known as Paradise Valley Golf Course, which the family still owns and operates today as a three-par chip-’n’-putt in University City.
Ratcliffe died in 1977, but not before leaving a legacy buried on the golf course for his children to find. A few years later, Velma told her son Del that they needed to find it, but they had to be careful.
“Frank had had some pretty unsavory characters in his life and Velma didn’t want the word to get out that they were trying to dig up his secrets because those people would have started coming back around,” McClure said. “So she would only let Del go out and look for it late at night.”
Del dug where his mother told him — four bricks in and three steps out from the corner of the family barbecue — but she quickly became nervous so they stopped. They’d look in different places over the next few years, but never find anything.
In 1984, two weeks before the family closed on selling part of the golf course property, Del decided he had to find what his father had left, he just needed to dig a little deeper.
He returned to the spot near the barbecue and used heavy equipment to go deep into the soil. This time, according to McClure’s version of events, he unearthed seven mason jars covered in aluminum foil and stuffed with recipes from old moonshiners.
Those recipes would eventually become the base formula for the products made today at Seven Jars Distillery, McClure said. By putting them to use, Frank’s hope that small craft distillery businesses would one day be allowed to operate legally in North Carolina came to pass.
Opening the distillery
Seeing the opportunity to share their family’s unique story and role in Charlotte bootlegging history, Velma’s children convinced her to get a distillery licensed and operating in Mecklenburg County.
Unfortunately, she never saw it come to fruition. Velma died in August 2013; Seven Jars Distillery opened the following year.
Today, Del concentrates on the family’s golf courses (they operate 22 and own five in the Carolinas) and handles marketing for the distillery. McClure’s wife, Velda, does the accounting.
As a nod to Frank’s seven jars, the distillery offers seven spirits: Ava Gardner bourbon whiskey (named after the famous actress), apple pie whiskey, straight bourbon whiskey, rye whiskey, rum, vodka and pickleback vodka.
They also make small batches of select beers and over a dozen wines that are sold on site, at Harris Teeter locations and in some local convenience stores and restaurants.
McClure said the most popular product is the straight bourbon, followed by the Ava Gardner bourbon, which is shipped globally and made in partnership with the Ava Gardner Trust and Legacy Talent and Entertainment. The apple pie whiskey is another customer favorite and the pickle-flavored vodka makes one hell of a Bloody Mary, McClure said.
Most of the liquor production takes place between October and May, when temperatures are cooler. The summer is spent bottling, labeling and packaging.
“When the outdoor temperature gets above 75 degrees, the fermentation doesn’t happen the way it’s supposed to,” McClure said. “You actually end up killing off the yeast.”
In addition to head distiller, McClure also handles all the sales for Seven Jars. He thinks the rules small distillers have to follow today would have driven his father-in-law crazy.
When Seven Jars first opened in 2014, he explained, they weren’t allowed to sell their own product on site — only in the ABC stores. In order to even serve samples to visitors in the distillery’s tasting room, McClure had to ship his alcohol to Raleigh, wait for it to arrive at a local ABC store then buy it himself.
The next year, the state ABC commission allowed Seven Jars to sell one bottle per person per year. The rule later changed to three bottles, then five bottles a year later. As of September 2021, the distillery is allowed to sell unlimited bottles to customers.
“Each year, the rules have gotten better, but we’re a long way away,” McClure said. “It’s my personal opinion that the system, the way it’s set up today, is very unfair to North Carolina distilleries because the bigger companies just have so much play.”
There are more laws for distilleries today than in Frank Ratcliffe’s day — driving around the streets of Charlotte in loaded-down, souped-up Model A Fords — and even more than when his father was in the bootlegging business before him.
For Ratcliffe’s children, Seven Jars Distillery is more of a business of their heritage than necessarily of making a profit, and an opportunity to share a little unknown piece of Charlotte history.
“Obviously, we’re trying to do it legally and it’s fun and we enjoy it,” McClure said. “But every once in a while, we’ll look around and something stupid will be happening that we’re having to jump through hoops for and we’ll just look to each other and say, ‘Granddaddy might of had the right idea.’”
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