The state of Idaho has poured Five Wives Vodka a shot of free publicity.
Not that Ogden's Own Distillery is in an ideal position to cash in. The Utah-produced vodka is essentially a controlled substance in Idaho, where the rules of private enterprise govern nearly every sector of commerce, save for booze.
Five Wives has been banned from the shelves of Idaho's state-run liquor stores — because the brand name, and its too-tepid-to-be-edgy reference to polygamy, may be offensive to Idaho Mormons.
Never mind that practicing Mormons aren't supposed to frequent a liquor store. (Not to put too sharp a point on it, but that's the truth.)
Never mind that Five Wives is available in state-run liquor stores in Utah, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is headquartered. (Which means, in some southeast Idaho border towns, driving to Utah to look for a wife may have just taken on new meaning.)
Never mind that anyone can walk into an Idaho grocery store and grab a Polygamy Porter. That's because the state allows this thing called the free market determine what brews are available for sale — and yet the state has withstood the grave affront posed by Polygamy Porter.
So I go back to an old question: What is the state doing in the booze business, anyway?
The Five Wives fiasco is further proof — 80 proof, to be exact — of the inherent silliness of state-controlled liquor sales. It's ridiculously hypocritical to put the decisions of liquor product sales in the hands of a state bureaucrat, Jeff Anderson, who heads the state's liquor division.
Five Wives didn't make the cut largely because of its name and label. But, as Anderson told the Statesman's Audrey Dutton, personal preferences entered the equation. "(Five Wives) doesn't have a unique flavor profile ... it's quite average."
Sounds like a matter of taste, then. Kind of like the "offensive" Five Wives name is also a matter of taste.
While Five Wives is getting all the media attention, and the Ogden distillery is playing the state's snub to full public relations advantage, the state turns down brands of booze on almost a daily basis. The state gets pitches for 500 or so products a year and says yes to about 150, Anderson said.
So that's about 350 brands that are banned in Idaho, every year. Remember that the next time you hear an Idaho elected official talk about how government just has to get out of the way of private business.
Some private business, anyway.
Idaho could actually pocket a windfall if it got out of the liquor business — $48 million to $60 million the first year, and $200,000 to $600,000 thereafter, according to a January 2011 Office of Performance Evaluations report. But Gov. Butch Otter is staunchly opposed to privatization, and the Legislature isn't taking on this idea of its own accord. Conveniently forgetting their rhetoric about free enterprise, they wrap themselves in state code that speaks of "curtail(ing) the intemperate use" of alcohol.
A noble cause. But one that could be furthered by taking a segment of the privatization windfall and dedicating it to education and detox programs.
Don't bank on it. Unless and until the private sector presses the issue — which is what happened in Washington, where Costco was a driving force behind a 2011 initiative to privatize liquor sales — this issue isn't going anywhere.
And Idaho will keep running its liquor monopoly. No matter how foolish and hypocritical it looks in the process.