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The Idaho State Liquor Division

Five Wives VodkaIn the United States, there are eighteen “control states” in which the wholesale and/or retail sale of alcoholic beverages is subject to a state monopoly. The agency responsible for administering the monopoly in Idaho, the Idaho State Liquor Division, offers the following description of its mission: “to provide control over the importation, distribution, sale, and consumption of distilled spirits; to curtail intemperate use of beverage alcohol; and to responsibly optimize the net revenues to the citizens of Idaho.” Notably missing from that statement is any mention of protecting consumers from words or images that some of them might find offensive. Yet that is exactly what happened when a Utah company, Ogden's Own Distillery, attempted to sell its award-winning “Five Wives Vodka” in Idaho. The Liquor Division refused to include Five Wives on its list of products available for sale at bars and in liquor shops after determining that the “concept” of the product was “offensive to a prominent segment of our population.”

Based on the Liquor Division's explanation of its decision, Ogden's Own concluded that the only group who might find the concept of Five Wives Vodka offensive was Idaho's Mormon population. While Mormons make up 27 percent of the state's population—certainly a “prominent segment”—they also, as a rule, do not drink alcohol and would presumably be very unlikely to encounter Five Wives in a bar or one of the state-run liquor stores. When Ogden's Own pointed this fact out to the Liquor Division and it was picked up in the press, the Division claimed that women, not Mormons, were the issue. Bottles of Five Wives Vodka feature a historical photograph of five 19th century women in bonnets and petticoats holding kittens near their lady parts. What this image has to do with the “concept” of the product is unclear, but according to Jeff Anderson, director of the Division, at least one female member on his staff found the label to be objectionable. Anderson then added a new wrinkle to the controversy: Despite evidence to the contrary in its letter to Ogden's Own, he suggested that the Division's decision to ban Five Wives was unrelated to the label at all. Calling the award-winning spirit “an average product trying to get a premium price,” Anderson claimed that there simply wasn't enough space for Five Wives alongside the 106 other similarly-priced vodkas sold by the state.

It wasn't until Ogden's Own threatened a lawsuit that the Liquor Division's parade of justifications for the ban came to a halt. The agency agreed to make Five Wives available to customers in Idaho, but only on a special order basis. Bars and individuals can order Five Wives through the state, but liquor stores still may not stock it on their shelves. This status also means that Ogden's Own may not engage in the same type of advertising and promotional activities for Five Wives that are available to companies selling products stocked in the state-owned stores.

Because the value of speech is a completely subjective determination that can vary from person to person, the First Amendment does not permit government officials to impose their individual preferences on the public. As United States Supreme Court Justice Harlan famously wrote, “one man's vulgarity is another's lyric.” Whether one finds the “Five Wives” name and label amusing or offensive is a matter of personal taste. For believing it has the right to define what is offensive for all the citizens of Idaho, the Idaho State Liquor Division earns a 2013 Jefferson Muzzle.

DMU Timestamp: March 28, 2013 23:38

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