Utah’s ‘Mr. Liquor,’ who helped modernize alcohol laws while also keeping the Mormon population happy, dies at 82

(Tribune archive photo) Kenneth Wynn, director of the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

Every day, during his 30 years as executive director of the Utah Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, Kenneth Wynn walked a fine line — always working to provide alcohol for legal adults, while appeasing the state’s predominantly Mormon population, which is taught to abstain from liquor.

With a no-nonsense attitude, a sharp sense of humor and an uncanny ability to mediate both sides of a hot-button issue, Wynn — who died Saturday at 82 — was often referred to as Utah’s “Mr. Liquor."

Born on May 24, 1936, in Thermopolis Wyo., Wynn was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But he defied the usual stereotypes. “He knew that alcohol was part of our society and tried to create a balance," said his son Trent Wynn. "He realized that even in a religious state, you don’t need to shut off liquor.”

Wynn was appointed to lead the DABC in 1977 by then-Gov. Scott Matheson and stayed through three more administrations, retiring in 2007. “Working under four separate governors, that doesn’t happen very often," said Trent Wynn, noting that those three decades marked tremendous growth in Utah’s economy, population and liquor consumption.

Matheson hired Ken Wynn, who had previously worked for the state-run liquor agency in Montana, to clean up the DABC and keep it out of the news, explained Brett Clifford, who was a liquor store manager at the time and later became the state’s premium wine buyer.

In 1975, the agency was reeling from a major bribery and political patronage scandal that involved liquor brokers, commissioners, employees and politicians.

Wynn stepped in and implemented higher ethical standards, said Clifford. “I give him full credit for rescuing this dysfunctional agency and keeping it off the rocks for 30 years.”

Wynn seemed to do it without making enemies, or, at least, none that he worried about.

“He had an uncanny ability to balance so many competing interests, especially the LDS Church and the liquor industry. They both trusted him,” Clifford said. “He was [at alternating times] a drinker and an active Mormon. He was profane and spiritually sensitive, gruff yet tender and compassionate.”

During his tenure, Wynn also made other significant changes. He worked to improve Utah’s wine selection and opened the state’s first wine-only store in Trolley Square, hiring Clifford to manage and oversee the purchasing.

Minibottles were phased out — replaced with a metering system that still exists today. And, possibly the most significant change, the Legislature did away with private clubs in advance of the 2002 Winter Olympics.

“He was so proud of how the state accommodated the world,” said Trent Wynn. “He was always proud of the agency’s ability to transition and change through the years.”

Wynn’s work extended beyond Utah. He was active in the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association (NABCA), an organization that unites leaders of all the liquor-control states.

Wynn was the organization’s longest-serving board member and the only person to serve two terms as chairman of the board, said NABCA President and CEO Jim Sgueo. “Because he was a strong believer in the control model, he was instrumental in bringing together all the other states to meet and share best practices."

Sgueo also pointed out that during Wynn’s tenure, Utah became the first state to launch an automated retrieval system in its liquor warehouse, something other states have since emulated.

After retiring, Wynn joined the board of the Utah Hospitality Association, a lobbying organization for bars and restaurants. He served as the group’s spokesman in 2012, when it filed a court order to stop the LDS Church from influencing lawmakers when drafting liquor laws.

At the time, Wynn made headlines when he said that his three decades leading the DABC gave him “firsthand knowledge that the LDS Church has influenced every piece of liquor legislation that the state has adopted over the past three decades.”

For Salt Lake City attorney Rick Golden, who worked as a DABC compliance officer, Wynn was simply “the best boss I ever had."

“He was adept and pretty intuitive about people and was an excellent manager, keeping a lot of balls in the air without letting them drop,” Golden said. "He was funny, but he didn’t put up with bulls---.”

That’s something the Wynn family noted in the obituary. Wynn, according to the notice, had a love for "family, BYU football, good hot sauces and a disdain for any ‘candy a--’ who couldn’t handle them.”

Wynn is survived by his second wife, Jeanene; son, Trent; daughter, Rachel; and several grandchildren. His funeral is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at Russon Brothers Mortuary, 295 N. Main, Bountiful.