As Americans and U.S. residents, the myriad state laws dictating where and when we can buy our booze are complicated. This nationwide patchwork of alcohol regulations unintentionally gave rise to a multitude of colloquialisms to refer to one’s local liquor purveyor, with local expressions ranging from the colorful to the banal.
And yet, whether you refer to your local purveyor as a liquor store, party store, or “packy,” the convoluted nomenclature created by each state’s liquor laws would not be as colorful if not for the enterprising, law-skirting citizens of pre-Prohibition Charleston, S.C.
In 1892, the governor of South Carolina, Benjamin Tillman, pushed the adoption of a dispensary system in the state. Tillman presented the new law as a way to promote temperance by ensuring no one except the state “dispensers” could sell alcohol. As Robert F. Moss, culinary historian and author of “Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South,” writes on his eponymous blog, this meant “all the saloons, hotel bars, and retail liquor stores had to close their doors.”
The South Carolina state government had essentially established a monopoly on liquor. Once the law went into effect in 1893, the state government was the only legal entity that could purchase whiskey barrels and bottle the booze for sale.
Despite the law’s significant impact on business owners, an alternative would not present itself until several years later. Liquor purveyors tried everything they could to outsmart the law, Moss writes, “including filing repeated lawsuits and scrutinizing every possible loophole in the state and Federal code. One possibility they seized upon was a U. S. Supreme Court decision from seven years earlier.”
In ruling on Leisy v. Hardin (1890), the Supreme Court “held that no state could confiscate property that Congress recognized as being legally imported into that state.” As long as the booze was in its “original packages,” it was legal and could be sold to consumers. In 1897, J.S. Pinkussohn opened the original package store at 269 King Street in Charleston.
Pinkussohn “ordered 1,000 cases of liquor, which arrived via a Clyde Line steamer and was hauled through the Charleston streets from the port to Pinkussohn’s store. … Pinkussohn sold his liquor in gallon packages, but within days rival package stores opened their doors and started selling pint and half-pint bottles, too,” Moss writes.
Mark R. Jones, author of the “Wicked Charleston” series and a Charleston tour guide, tells VinePair that because Charleston’s economy relied on liquor to drive tourism, the South Carolina Dispensary System was “almost universally ignored by locals, and politicians were colluding with locals to subvert it.”
During this time, Charleston became a hotbed for blind tigers, “nightclubs that served alcoholic beverages by-the-drink,” Jones adds. These illegal establishments were the precursors to the speakeasies of the Prohibition era. By 1913, the city of Charleston was home to 250 blind tigers.
Today, state laws dictate much of how we drink, where we drink it, and where we buy it to drink at home. In 17 states, namely in the Southeast, Mid-Atlantic, and the Northeast, the government either owns all the liquor stores or controls distribution to private retailers. In states where all liquor is sold in stores owned exclusively by the government, the resulting nicknames are equally bureaucratic, such as “ABC,” for the Alcoholic Beverage Control commission in states such as Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia, or “state stores,” as Pennsylvanians often call them.
In other states that have allowed for some level of privatization in the beverage alcohol industry, locals may stop off at the “party store” to pick up their fix.
In New England, meanwhile, residents refer to their local beer or liquor distributor as the “packy,” short for package store. While package stores can be found across the country, they, too, have roots that date back to South Carolina in the late 19th century.
While the battle over government control of the sale and use of alcohol would be fought in the decades culminating in Prohibition, terms like “package store” outlasted the controversy and remain neon-lit examples of America’s legacy of liquor laws. It’s all thanks to Charleston’s subversive, speakeasy-preceding package stores.