Steve Conlin knows this: A vodka by any other name would not sell as sweetly.
Conlin’s Ogden, Utah, distillery sells Five Wives Vodka, a product using a coy play on the state’s history with polygamy. But not everyone is laughing and, in fact, the neighboring state of Idaho refused to allow the liquor to be sold in the state, citing objections over the vodka’s name.
But now Conlin is toasting a victory.
On Wednesday, faced with threat of a lawsuit, Idaho said it will allow the sale of Five Wives Vodka.
Apparently, the polygamy riff hit too close to home. The Idaho State Liquor Division had said the bottle label was offensive; it features a historic photo of members of an old female vaudeville act hiking up their skirts. A quarter of Idaho’s residents are Mormon, and the church there at one time allowed polygamy. Utah is home to the Mormon church.
“For us it was a denial of access to their market, based on their interpretation of our label and name – they thought we were offensive and felt they needed to protect their population,” said Steve Conlin, a partner and marketing chief for Ogden’s Own Distillery. “To the rest of the nation it might be much ado about nothing, but for us it meant that we couldn’t sell our product and we didn’t take that lightly.”
On Wednesday, George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley posted a letter on his website alerting Idaho officials that he planned to sue on behalf of the vodka producers, calling the ban unconstitutional.
Hours later, Idaho officials cried uncle.
“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,” the state’s State Liquor Division said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
Conlin said he has not ruled out suing the state of Idaho to clear the way for his product to be sold in bars and elsewhere without special order status. The vodka is already sold unencumbered in Montana and Wyoming.
The Five Wives Vodka label was unveiled in Utah in December. Conlin said the manufacturers knew the name would raise some eyebrows, but they didn’t expect economic roadblocks.
“The label doesn’t have any religious nature or mention of polygamy – it’s just five women on the label. Frankly, we like the ambiguity and figured that people would bring their own interpretation to the picture,” Conlin said.
“We get that people have dirty minds, don’t get me wrong and we’d be stupid to say that we didn’t know that some people were going to go there. But it’s not our problem. It says more about the person looking at the label than the label itself.”
Conlin has also learned this: Any publicity is good publicity.
“When we released the product, we made 84 T-shirts we hoped to sell or even give away,” he said. “Thanks to this whole thing, we’ve already sold close to 1,500.”