OLCC touts its hard liquor sales — but not too proudly

By Jayson Jacoby February 10, 2012 05:48 pm

Oregon's budget continues to suffer, but the boozers, bless their hearts (and livers), are doing their part to keep the state afloat.

I'm no teetotaler, mind you.

Although beer is my favorite tipple I don't begrudge people who prefer the harder stuff.

It is, as they say, a free country.

Yet I never fail to be amused by the semantic machinations which manifest when the government is, in effect, both bartender and surrogate AA counselor.

In Oregon, as you probably know, a state agency, the aptly named Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC), runs the distilled spirits business, and with a stout, if not exactly iron, fist.

Cases of Jim Beam and Jack Daniel's arrive at a state-operated warehouse and are loaded into trucks by state employees.

Bottles of liquor can be sold legally only in state-authorized stores owned by state-approved contractors.

One result of this system — and the one that gets me to chuckling — is that OLCC, when it touts a solid earnings report, can't celebrate with quite the unbridled glee that distinguishes the public pronouncements of private companies.

OLCC seems to me an agency forever mired in ambivalence, never completely comfortable with the intoxicating aspect of its mission.

When the spirits are really flying off the shelves OLCC will issue a press release. But the enthusiasm of these reports invariably is tempered by the sober admonitions of the faceless bureaucracy.

The difference between the public and the private approach, as regards the promotion of hard liquor sales, was nicely illustrated by a pair of emails I recently received.

One was from OLCC, the other from Hood River Distillers.

The former was headlined: "OLCC announces $20 million increase of liquor sales in 2011."

It goes on to say that people shelled out $448.8 million for state-sanctioned liquor in 2011 — 4.5 percent more than in 2010.

This trend suggests that the nation's, and state's, economic malaise is not total.

(Or else it's worse than we thought, and great sorrows are being drowned regularly.)

And it is a trend which OLCC clearly approves of.

Which is hardly surprising, considering the agency, by its own accounting, gets 95.3 percent of its money from the sale of liquor. Taxes on beer and win, license fees and fines combined amount to a pittance.

The press release continues: "The OLCC continues to generate much needed revenue for critical programs like health & human services, education and enforcement."

Well, I wouldn't say OLCC generated that revenue.

Thirsty Oregonians did.

I'm not sure, though, whether the wording in this press release — and many others I've received from OLCC — is intended to take credit for the agency that which rightfully belongs to drinkers.

It seems to me more plausible that OLCC, plagued by the contradiction inherent in its mission — to both sell a lot of booze and to make sure every ounce is sipped with the care of a connoisseur — wants to avoid being accused of getting overly excited about how much 80-proof Oregonians are tossing back.

And so the opening paragraph, with its dollar figures and percentage increases that could have been culled from a Fortune 500 press packet, are followed by the assurance that OLCC's overriding goal is to "ensure that alcohol isn't being sold to minors or people who are intoxicated."

This, of course, is a vital task.

And one for which the government is well-suited.

But here's the thing: There's no compelling reason for the government to have to stand, as it were, on both sides of the bar.

OLCC could monitor the sellers of liquor, and collect and distribute their taxes, without also serving as their supplier; these functions are hardly mutually exclusive.

The FDA, for instance, tries to make sure your dinner isn't rife with salmonella.

But that agency doesn't stock the shelves at the local grocery store.

Contrast the OLCC press release with these passages from Hood River Distillers' email unveiling its cinnamon-flavored whisky (I'm leery of writing the product's name, since the press release rendered the name with the trademark symbol):

• "the name instantly lets the drinker know they are in store for a unique, sweet yet sizzling experience"

• "(the trademarked whisky) combines the smooth, rich notes of a good, balanced whisky and warm, spicy-sweet cinnamon flavors."

• "a truly invigorating tasting experience."

That's pure advertising puffery — untainted by the apologetic, hedging tone of a typical OLCC dispatch.

But at least the Hood River Distillers announcement is straightforward.

And, in its way, honest.

I don't mean to imply that OLCC is dishonest.

But I think the agency's mission would be vastly simpler — and vastly less ambiguous — were it to give up its role as wholesaler.

For instance, I doubt any reasonable person believes that every penny of the $448.8 million in sales that OLCC touts in the first paragraph of its press release constitutes money well-spent, at least based on the standards OLCC sets out in the second paragraph.

The second paragraph includes the phrase I listed earlier: "The OLCC works. . . to ensure alcohol isn't being sold to minors or people who are intoxicated."

Well that OLCC does so.

But, as I'm sure the agency itself would concede, it falls short of complete success.

No shame in that.

It just seems silly to me that OLCC, in celebrating how much alcohol passed through its hands last year, simultaneously admits, albeit in an implicit rather than a direct way, its failure to make sure that each drop slid down an appropriate, and responsible, throat.


Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.