If Washington legislators hadn't looked north of the border for liquor-law inspiration, the state might have a less cockeyed set of regulations today, according to


Wondering Why You Can't Buy Gin at the Grocery Store? Blame Canada.

If Washington legislators hadn't looked north of the border for liquor-law inspiration, the state might have a less cockeyed set of regulations today, according to a pair of alcohol historians.

University of Washington professor William Rorabaugh, past president of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, and Pike Brewing Company founder Charles Finkel last night headlined the first program in Humanities Washington's "Think & Drink" series, an Oregon-originated concept described as "hosted conversations, held in pubs, on provocative topics and new ideas." More than 100 interested drinkers gathered at Naked City Brewery to hear the pair review the convoluted path that's led to the current liquor-privatization initiative.

As Rorabaugh explained, when Prohibition ended, states were charged with devising rules to prevent the outbreak of an alcoholic free-for-all. While a few states opted to uphold Prohibitionist laws within their borders, another 18 states--including Washington--declared themselves "control states," meaning the government monopolized part or all of the wholesale alcohol trade.

"Washington state basically copied its system from British Columbia," Rorabaugh said. "The government sent a delegation to Victoria and they literally copied the statute."

Finkel grumbled, "I can't imagine why you'd choose the worst of all systems. It's like copying British Columbia for its food."

The rationale for the three-tiered system, which segregated production, retailing, and barkeeping functions, was partly economic. Before Prohibition, 70 percent of American saloons were "tied houses," essentially franchisees of big-name brewers. As Daniel Okrent wrote in Last Call, his history of Prohibition, if saloon operators agreed to serve only one brand of beer, the brewery "would provide cash, loans, and whatever other emoluments were necessary to furnish the place, stock the lunch table, meet the license fee, and line the pockets of a politician or three."

The practice resulted in a gush of saloons, which reformers blamed for disrupting families and making streets unsafe. Many "drys" were converted to the cause, not because they opposed drinking but because they despised saloon culture.

In addition to the social costs of tied houses, the system also ensured much of the money spent on booze was funneled out-of-state. States which adopted beverage-control laws hoped to reassert their claim to profits generated by drink.

Washington's control laws only extended to hard liquor, since the state didn't want to impede business for Olympia and Rainier breweries. Legislators didn't have a distilling constituency to protect.

"The state had no interest in having out-of-state distillers sell their liquor in Washington," Rorabaugh said.

Nor did legislators want out-of-state winemakers competing with Washington wineries. Until 1969, when the E&J Gallo Winery threatened to boycott Washington grapes if the state didn't modify its laws, "foreign wines" could only be sold in state-run stores. Once restrictions were relaxed, retailers began opening wine shops stocking the world's best wines.

Finkel--a foe of governmental meddling who believes regulatory agencies overstepped their bounds when they required liquor producers to warn pregnant women not to drink--thinks the selection of spirits statewide would similarly improve if sales were privatized. "It's like privatizing anything," he said. "If this pub was owned by the state of Washington, you can fall asleep thinking about how interesting that would be."

Rorabaugh was more measured in his assessment of Initiative 1183, which calls for the closure of state liquor stores. While the audience was recruited largely through beer blogs, many of its members shared his skepticism about the grocery stores backing the bill.

"You should ask yourselves who put this on the ballot and why," Rorabaugh said, in the evening's only applause line. "Someone is planning on making a lot of money on this."

And, as the speakers reminded the crowd, money has always driven liquor laws.

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