Five Wives Vodka distiller may sue Idaho over ban

SALMON, Idaho, June 6 Thu Jun 7, 2012 4:35am IST

SALMON, Idaho, June 6 (Reuters) - A Utah-based distillery on Wednesday threatened to sue Idaho for banning the sale of its Five Wives Vodka, which the state deemed an affront to Mormon residents because of its allusion to polygamy.

Ogden's Own Distillery earlier this year unsuccessfully sought permission from Idaho to stock Five Wives Vodka at state-operated stores.

The vodka's bottles are emblazoned with the image of five women from the late 19th century exposing their petticoats.

Idaho banned distribution of the vodka because it "is offensive to a prominent segment" of the state's population, Howard Wasserstein, deputy director for procurement, distribution and retail operations with the Idaho liquor office, said in a statement.

More than 400,000 Idaho residents - or about a third of the state's population - are part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormon church. Idaho ranks behind only Utah and California for its concentration of Mormons.

The distillery, approved to sell Five Wives in Utah where the church is headquartered, last month began selling a line of T-shirts with the slogan "Free the Five Wives" in an attempt to make Idaho reconsider.

With no further word from the state, the company of four employees on Wednesday announced it had hired Jonathan Turley, a high-profile legal scholar from George Washington University, to plead its case.

In a letter to the Idaho state Liquor Division, Turley accused officials of smearing Ogden's Own and disparaging its product as "low class."

"I am, frankly, astonished by the vitriol and venom directed at this small company," he wrote. "It is clear from the continuing attacks from your office that nothing short of a lawsuit will compel your agency to reconsider its decision."

He accused Idaho of constitutional violations such as interfering with interstate commerce and restraining free speech.

Wasserstein and Jeffrey Anderson, director of the state Liquor Division, did not respond to requests for comment on the threat of legal action.

Steve Conlin, a partner with Ogden's Own, said the company hopes to get the Idaho ban lifted without litigation. In the crowded vodka market, the distillery branded its drink as Five Wives to win attention, he said.

"We want to be able to sell our vodka in Idaho; that's the bottom line," Conlin said.

It is unclear what effect, if any, the debate is having on a church that abandoned polygamy, or plural marriage, in 1890 and eschews alcoholic and hot beverages.

"I can't think of too many vodka-drinking LDS members," church spokesman Eric Hawkins told Reuters.

In addition to Utah, Five Wives is sold at some outlets in Wyoming, online in California and is planned for distribution in Colorado. (Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Colleen Jenkins and Richard Chang)

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