The Tavern In Charleston, America's Oldest Liquor Store, Has Been Selling Booze Since 1686

Prohibition didn't even put a dent in the timeline of America's oldest liquor store. Located in Charleston, South Carolina, the business known today as Tavern at Rainbow Row kept right on catering to the whims of locals looking for an illicit tipple throughout the nationwide ban on the sale and consumption of alcohol that ran from 1920 to 1933. We can only guess the early 20th-century proprietors of the long-running mercantile were less than impressed by the booze-busting efforts of Elliot Ness and his famed FBI team, the Untouchables. After all, previous owners of the business, founded in 1686, likely encountered far more menacing characters — notorious 17th-century pirates including Blackbeard, Anne Bonney, and Thomas Tew were known to frequent the area.

The long-running liquor emporium, originally a seafarer's tavern, sits on a bluff overlooking the Port of Charleston. Historic documents and maps found in The Netherlands and in Scotland reveal the centuries-old business has been known by many names during its 300-plus year run, including Tavern on the Bluff, Harris's Tavern, and Mrs. Coates Tavern by the Bay. Through the centuries, it's been both a tavern and a retailer, but not always at the same time. From 1903 until the start of Prohibition, the business operated as a whiskey store. Maybe that's why it so seamlessly went underground for the duration of the U.S. ban on alcohol.

Hidden in plain sight

Its location on a bluff near the harbor came in handy during Prohibition, offering easy access for rum runners making clandestine deliveries. To conceal its illicit operation, the then-owners of the storied establishment disguised the business as a run-of-the-mill barbershop. Illegal entrepreneurs made deliveries through an out-of-sight door into a back room where a trapdoor led to a network of tunnels connecting the bootleg distributor to speakeasies throughout the city of Charleston. When the U.S. government repealed Prohibition, the liquor store reopened to the public, never missing a beat.

Located across from Charleston's Rainbow Row — a historic district where the streets are lined with pastel-painted houses — today's Tavern at Rainbow Row still operates as the neighborhood liquor store, but with a twist. In addition to selling commonly known beer, wine, and spirits, the shop specializes in unique commodities, like locally made moonshine and vodka made from seashore black rye, a variety of grain considered extinct until the discovery of a small patch growing on Edisto Island in South Carolina's Low Country. The business also lays claim to occupying the oldest commercial building in South Carolina, complete with the original hardwood floors and a collection of vintage liquor bottles. And, according to some reports, the building may even be haunted.