Idaho throws out ban on Five Wives Vodka after lawsuit threat
BOISE, Idaho — Idaho reversed direction in the face of a lawsuit yesterday and said it will sell Five Wives Vodka, drawing applause from the liquor producer and its attorney.
The Idaho State Liquor Division rejected as offensive last week the product whose label, in an apparent reference to polygamy, shows five women hiking up their skirts. Idaho is more than 25% Mormon and the church at one time allowed polygamy but abandoned the practice in 1890.
The vodka originates from Ogden’s Own Distillery in Utah, where the Mormon church is based. The company had said it would sue Idaho on principle if necessary.
Yesterday, George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley in a letter to Idaho officials said he planned to sue on behalf of the producer of Five Wives Vodka, saying, “Idaho is the only state to raise religious and social sensibilities as a basis to deny entry to this product.” Turley called the ban unconstitutional and gave the state 10 days to reverse its position.
The state took only hours:
“In a shared desire to avoid unnecessary litigation costs to Ogden’s Own Distillery and the people of Idaho, today we have informed the makers of ‘Five Wives’ vodka that we will immediately begin processing special order requests for both on-premise licensees and retail consumers,” Jeff Anderson, director of the Idaho State Liquor Division, said in a statement yesterday afternoon.
Ogden’s Own Distillery, in a statement posted on its website, said it was pleased with the state’s decision.
“With special orders, Idaho will be allowing consumers to make their own choice as to what they want to buy and what they find offensive,” the company said. “Though we won’t be on the liquor store shelves just yet, we feel it should be only a matter of time as we will trust that the liquor division will base the decision on demand when we re-apply for general listing.”
The company added: “In the end, this dispute was about freedom of speech and consumer choice. We feel that both are in a little better position today in the state of Idaho.”
The company also said it appreciated Anderson’s apology for comments made by state officials questioning the quality of Five Wives Vodka as part of the state’s initial decision not to sell it in Idaho.
Anderson included the apology, which wasn’t a part of his public statement, in a letter to Elite Spirits Distribution owner John Challenger and officials at Ogden’s Own Distillery informing them of the change in Idaho’s policy.
“I apologize for comments reported in the media that may have led consumers to believe ‘Five Wives’ is an inferior vodka product,” Anderson wrote. A copy of the letter, obtained by the Associated Press, was also sent to Idaho Deputy Attorney General Tim Davis.
Turley did not respond to an e-mail yesterday evening concerning the change in Idaho’s position, but today on his website, he commended the state for reversing its decision and said he hoped the move would “reaffirm the principles of free speech and free enterprise in Idaho.”
Turley called the state’s decision “a legitimate basis for celebration” and said, “It is particularly fortuitous that the very object of this particular First Amendment fight can be used to celebrate its protection.”
“Congratulations to the fine people at Ogden’s Own,” Turley added. “Many a civil libertarian will be lifting a glass tonight in your honor.”
Five Wives Vodka was first sold in Utah in December 2011. Shortly after the ban was announced in Idaho the company started selling T-shirts with the five women behind bars and the caption “Free the Five Wives.”
Steve Conlin, a partner and marketing chief for Ogden’s Own Distillery, said the publicity from the ban had been good for the company but hadn’t boosted sales much because the vodka has only been available in Utah.
First Amendment Center Online staff contributed to this story.