Kentucky’s well-known ambivalence toward the legal sale of alcoholic beverages is being tested anew by a federal judge’s ruling that finds it’s unconstitutional to keep grocery stores and other retailers from purveying wine and spirits. The prohibition won’t end immediately, because there are other complications, but it looks as if another taboo is going to fall.
U.S. District Judge John G. Heyburn ruled the liquor store/pharmacy monopoly violates the U.S. Constitution’s assurance of equal protection under the law. If his opinion stands, supermarkets as well as gas stations and who knows what else will be able to compete for the limited number of liquor licenses available statewide.
This makes sense. Hardly anyone is upset these days to encounter a well-stocked beer cooler in the grocery store. But some see “hard” liquor and wine as another matter. For those products, you have to go down the street to the drug store or the package store. Some Kentucky supermarkets have gotten around the restriction by obtaining liquor licenses and stocking their own liquor stores in buildings separate from their grocery business. The only wine you’ll see inside a grocery store for the time being is the salty “cooking” variety – anathema to celebrity chefs who admonish us not to cook with anything we wouldn’t want to drink.
The equal-protection issue also came up last year when Franklin County Fiscal Court voted 5-3 to let local distilleries sell and distribute bourbon samples on Sunday – a proposal that drew fierce opposition from church people. County Attorney Rick Sparks and Magistrate Phillip Kring argued the plan didn’t go far enough because local liquor stores would still be forbidden to sell on Sunday. Sparks warned that these business places could challenge special treatment for the distilleries and demand that they, too, be allowed to sell their products on Sunday. That hasn’t happened yet, but it still may.
Lifting the ban on wine and liquor sales at grocery stores will predictably rile up inveterate foes of any Sunday alcohol sales. Ironically, it may also come under attack from liquor stores which would have to compete with “superstores” for sales. There will be limits, however, as the state Alcoholic Beverage Control department still has rules intended to prevent an overabundance of liquor outlets. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Too much of what some consider to be a bad thing is even worse.
Keeping it all in balance has to be a concern of the Governor’s Task Force on the Study of Alcoholic Beverage Control Laws in Kentucky, appointed by Gov. Steve Beshear. The new 20-member board is looking into the possibility of updating the commonwealth’s beverage laws and making them more consistent statewide.
The repeal of Prohibition did not end the debate over alcohol sales in Kentucky, a state that’s legendary for its distilling industry and for being a tithes-paying member of the Bible belt, where lots of church-going folks still take umbrage at products that loosen inhibitions, contribute to domestic abuse and fuel drunk driving. They won’t be happy to see shoppers loading bottles of whiskey and wine into their grocery carts, but they’ve learned to live with disagreeable reality before. Current business trends favor stores that meet customers’ multiple needs in one stop. It’s probably just a matter of time before that includes a wider variety of alcoholic beverages.