In the midst of Rainbow Row—an endearing lineup of historic, pastel-painted Georgian homes, and perhaps the city’s most recognizable attraction—sits an unassuming liquor store whose history provides a counterweight to Charleston’s “Holy City” image. Indeed, the oldest liquor store in the United States couldn’t have earned that distinction without at least a little mischief.
Historic letters and maps hand-drawn by a Scottish seafarer indicate that the exact location of today’s Tavern at Rainbow Row liquor store was a “Seafarer’s Tavern” as far back as 1686. It’s changed names and forms in the 300+ years since then, but never stopped distributing booze (even during Prohibition), making the nation’s longest-operating liquor store the oldest commercial building in Charleston as well.
Early years were none too glamorous. Two blocks from a bustling port, this pocket of Charleston was once a den of vice and playground for pirates. Figures like Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and Stede “The Gentleman Pirate” Bonnet were known to prowl the banks of the Cooper River. The city wasn’t spared from damage during the Revolutionary or Civil Wars, either, not to mention historic fires and earthquakes that brought down hundreds of Charleston’s buildings. Through it all, the Tavern kept tippling.
Understandably, emerging from a stretch of lawlessness and violence, the shop retained some edge, fronting as a barber shop through Prohibition to sell liquor from a backroom. To this day, a latch door in the back of the shop leads to an underground network of tunnels that once moved moonshine to speakeasies—then called “blind tigers”—about town.
While the current owners have honored the shop’s legacy by restoring the interior, they’re happy to now operate by the book. The shop still features its original hardwood flooring and brick walls, and all furnishings are—if not pre-Revolutionary era—certainly antique.
The Tavern specializes in local or rare (or both) spirits, like a five-grain bourbon made with a Carolina rice variety once thought extinct; a black tea liqueur made from the only large-scale slave plantation in the U.S.; and a vodka made from a rye grain only grown on SC’s Edisto Island, to name a few. To acquaint you with the unfamiliar, the shop also offers weekly tastings. Come on in and raise a glass to three more centuries of the hard stuff.