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State of Denial

In the ’80s and ’90s, U.S. states overwhelmingly anointed milk as their beverage of choice—even when it didn’t make any sense.

BY AIMEE LEVITT · NOV 16, 2022

In the event that someone demands you name an official symbol of your state—which, FYI, is a strong sign you’re in a doomed conversation—here’s a quick tip: Say your state beverage is milk. You have a nearly 50 percent chance of being right. Decent odds.

It’s true: Of the 30 states that happen to have official state beverages, 20 of them have chosen milk. For Wisconsin, aka America’s Dairyland (says so right there on the license plate), this makes at least practical sense. For states not particularly well known for their large population of dairy cows, like Louisiana or North Carolina, the logic is more…mysterious. 

That is, until you consider that in the 1980s and ’90s, when most of the states adopted milk as their official beverage, the dairy industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) were out on a bender together, campaigning to help the government rid itself of a $2 billion annual dairy surplus by coaxing Americans into consuming more milk, cheese, and ice cream. Remember the reigning milk ads of the era? Sure you do. Celebrities with milk mustaches counts as probably the flashiest campaign of them all.

State beverages were much less glamorous by comparison, but they still served a purpose. In making the push for state legislatures to choose an official beverage—meaning milk, basically—the powers that be at the USDA and dairy lobby also pushed those legislatures to acknowledge their state’s dairy industries and the money they represented. As an example, the official bill that recognized milk as South Carolina’s state beverage in 1984 noted, “The dairy industry in this State represents a one hundred million dollar enterprise.”

Since the turn of the century, the dairy industry has taken less of an interest in state symbols. Now the introduction of a state beverage serves mostly as an exercise for schoolchildren to learn how bills become laws and provides lawmakers with “some relief from the intensity of the normal legislative routine,” at least according to Edward C. Papenfuse, the Maryland state archivist, in a 2002 interview with The Washington Post.

“The dairy industry in this State represents a one hundred million dollar enterprise.”

In New Hampshire and Arizona, students were behind efforts to anoint cider and lemonade as proper state beverages—both of which won out over milk. Advocates for the moves argued that cider is a quintessential refreshment for the whole of New England and that lemon...well, lemon is a citrus fruit, if you didn’t already know, and represents one of the “Five Cs” of Arizona’s economic makeup (alongside copper, cattle, cotton, and climate).

There also have been direct challenges to the supremacy of milk as a state beverage. In 1995, the South Carolina legislature voted to enshrine tea, which has been grown in the state since colonial times, as the official state hospitality beverage, putting it on equal footing with milk…sort of. 

And three years later, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes a plant-based diet, attempted an actual coup. It sent a letter to the governors of seven states (Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Nebraska) requesting that milk be dropped as their state beverage because it’s not as healthy as the USDA claimed and contains large amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol.

But after it was revealed that Neal Barnard, the psychiatrist director and founder of PCRM, was also the medical adviser for the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the protest was quickly denounced by the mainstream medical establishment. Critics piled on. Susan Nitzke, an associate professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time, asked The Capital Times in Madison, “What are you going to be drinking if you're not drinking milk?” The question was rhetorical.

Nearly 20 years later, in 2017, Kentucky for Kentucky, a Lexington-based souvenir shop and purveyor of all things Kentucky, launched an online petition demanding a change from milk to bourbon. Makes pretty good sense. After all, Kentucky produces 95 percent of the world’s bourbon but ranks in the bottom half of U.S. states for milk production (a lowly 27th). Plus, the bill that made milk the official state beverage in 2005 was proposed by, you guessed it, a dairy farmer (who happened to be a state senator too).

“What are you going to be drinking if you're not drinking milk?”

“A lot of people through this petition are learning milk is the state beverage,” Whit Hilmer, a partner in Kentucky for Kentucky, told The Cincinnati Enquirer at the time. “A lot of people assumed it was bourbon.” Ultimately the petition failed to gain steam and proved unsuccessful.

Now, if bourbon can’t make it in Kentucky, maybe that helps explain why the Carolina Beverage Corporation—the makers of the much-celebrated, cherry-flavored soft drink Cheerwine—didn’t respond to inquiries about their interest in overthrowing milk as North Carolina’s state beverage. Perhaps the effort just seems futile. Same goes with the New York Apple Association and the Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association. Though New York and Oklahoma are among the nation’s top producers of apples and wheat, respectively, apple and wheatgrass juices might not stand much of a chance against decades of milk sovereignty. (For just a second, imagine Oklahoma changing its state beverage to wheatgrass juice. What a bizarre delight that would be.)

“A lot of people through this petition are learning milk is the state beverage. A lot of people assumed it was bourbon.”

Louisiana did return our call, however! Well, kind of. Burt Benrud, vice president of Cafe Du Monde—a New Orleans landmark well known for its beignets and chicory coffee—balks at the idea of replacing milk. He says he has no interest in anointing chicory coffee as the official Louisiana state beverage, despite its long history as New Orleanians’ hot drink of choice. 

“We don’t mind, not at all,” Benrud explains, noting that chicory coffee doesn’t taste right without milk anyway. He adds that, unlike the Hurricane or the Sazerac or other alcoholic drinks that are famous in Louisiana, “everybody of all ages can drink milk. In that regard, milk does fit the bill. It’s nothing we’d want to dethrone.”

Maybe there’s no good reason to pick a fight. After all, Cafe Du Monde already scored a victory in the statehouse: In 1986, the beignet became Louisiana’s official state doughnut.

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