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by Jock Phillips

New Zealand’s first European settlers – many of them single men – escaped the country’s rough conditions for the warmth and conviviality of pubs. From the early 20th century beer dominated, and until 1967 pubs featured the ‘six o’clock swill’, as men drank as much as they could before closing time. In the 2000s liquor laws were looser and wine was a more common tipple.

Colonial drinking, 1800–1880

Old world origins

Alcohol is 21st-century New Zealand’s most widespread drug – about $85 million is spent on it each week, and the equivalent of 34 million litres of pure alcohol consumed each year.

Traditionally Māori did not drink alcohol. The habit was introduced by settlers from Britain and Northern Europe. In their cultures alcohol, especially beer, was regarded as an essential food which helped make blood and give energy. Alcohol, usually in the form of spirits, was considered a medical tonic or ‘pick-me-up’ – although it is actually a depressant. At a time with few safe drinks – milk could carry disease, water was often contaminated and alternative drinks such as cordials, tea and coffee had not yet established themselves – alcohol seemed a daily necessity. It was used for celebratory occasions and as a daily fix which infused the sociable world of the village pub. Mediterranean cultures drank wine with meals, but this was rare in the United Kingdom.

Rum palace

William Fox visited a New Zealand grog shanty in 1877 and ordered dinner. ‘Absolutely everything on the table smelt of rum,’ he wrote. ‘The roast beef smelt of rum, the potatoes smelt of rum, the water-bottle smelt of rum, and the very tea smelt of rum; and the woman who brought the things into the room smelt of rum, and was so drunk that she could scarcely take them out again.’1

New Zealand conditions

Conditions in New Zealand made alcohol more attractive. On a frontier of tents and shacks, with many unmarried males, the pub offered warmth, news and company. Even in towns, the absence of amusements such as concerts or theatre gave the pub added value. By 1879 there was one hotel for every 287 Europeans, ranging from grand establishments to crude shanties. And there were new excuses for celebration, such as anniversary days, race days and the end of shearing.

Extent of drinking

Many observers believed colonial New Zealand was sodden with alcohol. Locals like George Chamier claimed, ‘It was considered a mean thing to drink alone; it was considered meaner still not to drink at all.’2 Foreign travellers shared Anthony Trollope’s view that the colonial New Zealander was ‘very fond of getting drunk’.3 In the United Kingdom in the 1870s there were about seven convictions for drunkenness for every 1,000 people; in New Zealand there were more than 18, and in 1864 during the gold rushes more than 28. Of 114,146 convictions from 1855 to 1870, 51,110 were for drunkenness.

Figures on alcohol consumption tell a different story. Although until 1867 only figures for beer imports, not local production, are available, and the extent of illegal production and smuggling is uncertain, it seems that until 1870 the consumption of alcohol per head was about the same as that of the UK. After 1870 it was significantly lower.

The universal currency

A visiting Scotsman, David Kennedy, observed New Zealanders in the 1870s: ‘Colonial Bill, when he beckons his chum Tom to have a “nobbler” over the way, is only increasing his long-established fame for good fellowship … No company of average men assembles, but some one “shouts” or “stands” drinks all round. Mr Black meets Mr White, whom he has not seen for a whole week and the consequence is a couple of “drinks”. Jones has something particular to say to Robinson about the weather – they “step across the road”. Smith settles an account with Brown and two “nips of brandy” are immediately called for …’4

Binge drinking

Two factors explain the contrast between observations of drunkenness and the moderate statistics. One is the high level of binge drinking. Many men in frontier jobs – shepherds, boundary watchers or bush fellers – worked miles from a pub. When paid they would come to town and ‘melt’ their cheque by going on a ‘burst’ or a ‘spree’. It could last for days. The men would get sodden drunk, there might be fisticuffs, and they would spill out onto the streets where their behaviour was highly visible. So total consumption was not high, but when drinking did happen it could be socially disruptive.

Spirits, not beer

Secondly, colonial drinkers, especially early on, did not drink beer, but spirits and fortified wines like sherry and port which had more powerful effects. At first most alcohol was imported and had to be carried inland. Beer was bulky and did not travel well. The alcohol content of wine and spirits relative to volume was higher, so importers promoted those drinks. Initially the major spirits were brandy and rum, with little gin and whisky. Until the mid-1860s per-capita consumption of spirits and wines was three to four times the UK level. Beer consumption was under half.

First brews

The very first beer made in New Zealand was brewed by British explorer James Cook at Dusky Sound in 1773. To ward off scurvy among his crew, Cook made beer from rimu and mānuka leaves. The first organised brewery was started by Jewish trader Joel Polack at Kororāreka (later Russell) in 1835.

Local brews

The beginning of local production changed things. Whalers and sealers had distilled liquor, but in 1841 stills were outlawed. The Distillation Act 1868 legalised the practice and two distilleries emerged. But when the duty on local spirits was raised in 1874, the industry collapsed, and local fire water was only produced illegally in places like the Hokonui Hills of Southland. By then almost half the spirits drunk was brandy, but whisky and gin had risen in popularity, to 19% and 17% respectively.

With beer the story was different. Local breweries emerged in the 1840s, but it was not until the 1860s that they made a difference. In the decade after 1867 the number of breweries increased from 51 to 91, and imported beer fell to 10% of beer sales. Numerous locally made beers meant that drink was more accessible and of better quality. Beer drinking increased. Even so, in the late 1870s beer consumption was still under half that of the United Kingdom.

  1. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates 25 (1877), p. 111. Back
  2. George Chamier, Philosopher Dick: adventures and contemplations of a New Zealand shepherd. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1891, p. 517. Back
  3. Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand. Melbourne: George Robertson, 1873, p. 632. Back
  4. David Kennedy, Kennedy’s colonial travel: a narrative of a four years’ tour through Australia, New Zealand, Canada, &c. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Publishing Company, 1876, p. 195. Back

Prohibition movement, 1880–1919

Few restrictions

From 1840 New Zealand governments issued licences for the sale of alcohol, but there were few restrictions. Central government earned revenue from duties on alcohol and provincial governments from the issue of a licence.


Europeans introduced alcohol to Māori, who were not initially impressed, and called spirits waipiro (foul water). Until the 1850s few Māori consumed alcohol, but thereafter there were increasing sales to Māori and the first evidence of drunkenness. So in 1847, 1870 and 1878 there were measures restricting booze in Māori areas. Māori presented petitions supporting such restrictions, and in 1884 liquor licences were banned from the King Country.

Hot topic

The drink question could raise extreme passions. In Dunedin in 1908 fire hoses had to be used to keep 1,000 people from forcing entry into an already-crowded hall where a debate between a wowser and a drinker was being held. In the end the event was abandoned because no-one could be heard.


From the 1840s there were critics of drink. Many were religious dissenters who saw alcohol as undermining moral behaviour; others pointed to its effects in bringing violence and distress, especially to women. Groups like temperance lodges and bands of hope campaigned for voluntary abstinence, and with the formation of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in 1885 and the New Zealand Alliance in 1886 the aim became total legal prohibition. Prohibition became a major, highly divisive moral crusade, with pamphlets, songs, processions, lectures and endless petitions. About half the New Zealand electorate for the three decades after 1900 supported the cause.


The results of the prohibition movement included:

  • no new licences without approval of the ratepayers
  • 12 of the 76 European electorates voted dry between 1894 and 1908
  • Sunday drinking abolished (1881)
  • the minimum drinking age raised to 18 (1904) and then to 21 (1910)
  • new barmaids banned (1910)
  • closing times reduced from midnight to 11 p.m. (1893), then to 10 p.m. and finally to 6 p.m. (1917 as a war measure, becoming permanent in 1918).

In December 1919 New Zealand avoided becoming completely dry by only 3,263 votes.


These legislative restrictions reduced the quantity, availability and visibility of drinking. The number of licensed pubs fell from one for every 328 people in 1880 to one for 833 in 1910. Between 1881 and 1919 the consumption of beer rose slightly on a per-capita basis, but spirits and wine both fell by about half. New Zealand consumption fell significantly behind the UK, and was lower than in Australia, the United States and Germany. Convictions for drunkenness (per head) dropped by a third.

Other factors reduced consumption. Alternative drinks became available – clean water provided to homes and in public fountains, as well as tea, coffee and fizzy drinks. Doctors turned against heavy drinking and stopped prescribing alcohol. The gender balance evened up and fewer single men rolled into towns from frontier pursuits.

The pub became less important as a social centre. Housing had improved. Pubs were stripped of ancillary attractions such as concerts, food and barmaids. Instead, alternative amusements such as theatres and libraries appeared elsewhere in towns and cities.

Male drinking

Drinking large amounts of alcohol did not stop. Without other attractions, the pub became purely a drinking establishment, and on occasion there were still outbreaks of drunken hooliganism.

Drunken diggers

In New Zealand the First World War training camps and troopships were officially dry, but when the soldiers visited towns or ports they often got drunk. Ten of the Third Reinforcement got so drunk in Albany they missed the boat. In Cairo and in England the camps had a wet canteen. On Armistice Day 1918 Kiwi soldiers did £800 worth of damage at Sling camp because beer was not served fast enough at a dance. In March 1919, £12,440 worth of damage was done at Sling in a disturbance led by drunken New Zealand soldiers.

Changing drinks

These years saw changes in the types of alcohol drunk. Neither table nor (especially) fortified wines were popular, and the small local wine industry was hit by phylloxera. Brandy and rum fell in popularity to under 10% of imported spirits by 1915, while whisky comprised about two-thirds.

Local breweries flourished, even if consumption per head did not rise. After Moss Davis installed a lager plant at the Captain Cook brewery in Auckland in 1900, lighter German-style beers began to replace English-style pale ales.

The beer swill, 1919–1960


During the interwar years, particularly as economic depression hit, alcohol consumption fell. By 1933 only 25.5 litres of beer per person was drunk, less than half of the 1920 figure (55.3). Wine consumption decreased to half a litre per person each year, a tiny amount, and spirits to under a litre, a third of the 1920 figure. New Zealand had become a beer country.

There were fewer pubs (one for every 1,542 people in 1945, compared with one for 833 in 1910). The rate of convictions for drunkenness halved between 1920 and 1940.

As economic conditions improved from the late 1930s, wine and spirits drinking remained stable, and beer drinking increased fast. By 1948 beer consumption was 78.7 litres per head. In 1957, just before new taxes briefly interrupted the rise, it was 103.6 litres (four times the consumption in 1933).

The six o’clock swill

The increase in beer consumption was partly fuelled by a reduction in the alcohol content of beer as a war measure in 1942. Some have suggested that this was the real beginning of ‘the swill’.

All for a cheap beer

Workingmen’s clubs on the West Coast were the result of a beer boycott in late 1947. Pubs on the coast decided to raise the price of a 10-ounce beer, from sixpence to the sevenpence charged elsewhere in New Zealand. Locals boycotted the hotels and flocked to the only pub which still charged the old price, the Central Hotel in Greymouth. After three months it was decided to form workingmen’s clubs selling cheap beer. In December 1947 they opened at Brunner, Greymouth and Rūnanga, followed soon after by clubs at Blackball, Hokitika, Reefton and Westport.

However, the conditions which produced the swill had emerged earlier. In 1918 six o’clock closing of pubs became permanent and this was reaffirmed in a 1949 referendum. Drinkers had one desperate hour of drinking between knocking off work and traipsing home to the dry suburbs. Also, in 1919 the very close vote which defeated prohibition became a disincentive for hotel owners to improve pub conditions out of fear of losing their investment. The vote for prohibition remained at over 40% until the end of the 1920s, then dropped to 29% in the 1930s. Even then, owners preferred to put money into buying up hotels rather than improving facilities, as limitations on new licences restricted competition. By law the drinking of beer could not be accompanied by the provision of food or the playing of music, and the scene was hidden from the world by frosted glass.

The result was that between 5 and 6 p.m. conditions in public bars were generally regarded as disgusting. There were no chairs and few tables, and the floor was covered in sawdust, linoleum or a sodden carpet. Barmen used hoses to fill jugs, which were handed back over the customers four to five deep. There were allegations that spills and dregs were recycled. Men drank at speed as they took turns to ‘shout’ one another.

As consumption rose after the Second World War, mass dispensing was facilitated by the delivery of beer to pubs in tankers, while the delivery of beer back home after closing time was aided by the use of ‘half-g’ (half-gallon or 1.9-litre) jars. With barmaids not allowed, the public bar became de facto a male enclave – which hardly improved the atmosphere. In practice women could only drink in the more respectable private bars upstairs, or at home.

Founding 10

The 10 breweries which formed New Zealand Breweries were Captain Cook and Lion in Auckland, Barry’s in Gisborne, Staples in Wellington, Crown, Mannings and Wards in Christchurch, and McGavins, Strachan’s and Speights – by far the biggest – in Dunedin.

The beer duopoly

In 1921 there were 57 breweries in New Zealand. But rail and road improvements allowed nationwide concentration. In 1923, 10 breweries came together to form New Zealand Breweries. In 1929 William Coutts, son of Cromwell brewer Joseph Kühtze, opened the Waitemata Brewery, and the following year went into partnership with Henry Kelliher to form Dominion Breweries. The two companies proceeded to buy up breweries, so that by 1961 there were only 11 left (and by 1970 only four), and to purchase pubs to control the outlets. Morton Coutts, son of William, invented a process of continuous fermentation, first used in Palmerston North in 1958 and later universally adopted. By the 1960s both corporations were pumping out large quantities of mass-produced sweet beer with little variation in taste.

There were a few threats to the duopoly. In 1944 Invercargill was allowed to establish a licensing trust, which operated liquor outlets on behalf of the local community. This model was followed in Masterton and some suburbs of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. In many communities the conditions in the pubs encouraged the establishment and expansion of workingmen’s and cosmopolitan clubs, which offered cheaper drinks in more comfortable surroundings.

The drink revolution, 1960 onwards

New laws

From the 1960s New Zealanders began to challenge their wowser heritage. Affluence and consumerism, overseas travel, the desire to attract foreign tourists and the emergence of urban culture combined to create new expectations. These were reflected in laws which transformed alcohol consumption in New Zealand.

  • liquor licences were extended to restaurants, taverns (which did not have to provide accommodation), theatres, airports, cabarets and sports clubs
  • 10 o’clock closing was introduced in a 1967 referendum
  • the drinking age was lowered to 20 in 1969.
  • supermarkets were allowed to sell first wine and then beer; by 2008 they were selling a third of all beer and 58% of all wine
  • standard opening hours were abolished in 1999 and bars could stay open all night
  • liquor sales were allowed on Sundays.

In 1999 the drinking age was lowered to 18.

The most obvious effect was on the availability of alcohol. The number of licensed premises increased from just over 1,000 in 1969 to over 14,000 in 2010.

New alcoholic drinks

With affluence and the new freedoms, consumption of alcohol by people aged 15 or over rose steadily to a peak in the late 1970s, before falling again. There were changes in the types of alcohol drunk.


From the late 1960s, as local production of wine took off and New Zealanders developed a taste for it, wine consumption rose. In 1960 less than half a litre was drunk by each person aged 15 or over. This doubled by 1970 and reached over 2.5 litres (more than five times the 1960 figure) in 1980. Wine remained popular and in 2011 constituted 21% of all alcohol consumed in New Zealand by volume – 32% as a proportion of pure alcohol. There were over 600 vineyards in the country.


It took some time before beer drinking was affected. Until the mid-1970s the two major breweries continued pumping out sugary beer through pub hoses. By 1976 they had gobbled up the remaining breweries. Then things changed. After reaching a peak in 1978, per-capita consumption fell. The two breweries introduced a range of beers, from international style to craft beers. Beginning with Macs in the early 1980s, small independent breweries emerged, such as Emersons and Harringtons in the 1990s and Tuatara and Epic in the 2000s. By 2011 there were over 60 breweries in the country. In addition low-alcohol beers were released and, following compulsory breath-testing of drivers in 1993, became relatively popular.

Look alike, taste alike

From the 1980s the two large beer companies – New Zealand Breweries which became Lion Nathan, and DB – responded to the decline of beer drinking with similar strategies. Both developed a mainstream national brand with clever advertising (Tui and Speights); both developed a quality lager (Steinlager and Export Gold); both were taken over by foreign owners in the 1990s; both began promoting a global European-style lager in green bottles (Stella Artois and Heineken); and both added a line of craft beer (Macs and Monteiths).

The effect was to give drinkers greater choice, and to shift the majority of beer away from pub hoses and into bottles. In 1980 only about 20% of beer was drunk from bottles or cans; by 2011, 65% was. Much of the bottled beer, like wine, was purchased in supermarkets. Such changes did not lead to increased consumption. Beer fell from 81% of the total volume of alcoholic beverages in 1996 to 63% in 2011, when it represented only 38% of the pure alcohol drunk. New Zealand was no longer a beer country.


For 20 years after 1960 the consumption of spirits rose steadily but unspectacularly. Whisky and gin were the most popular. In 1996 RTDs (ready-to-drinks) or alcopops came onto the market. They were mixes such as vodka and lemon or bourbon and cola, and were marketed in bottles like beer, primarily by Michael Erceg’s firm, Independent Liquor. RTDs proved popular among young women, for whom they allowed an easy transition from soft drinks to alcohol. Spirits-based drinks rose as a proportion of pure alcohol consumed, from 16% in 1996 to 29% in 2011. They comprised 15.7% of alcoholic drinks by volume.

Total consumption

The volume of alcohol drunk per person increased from 1960, reaching a high point in 1978. Then it fell by almost a quarter and remained relatively stable. However, this disguised the increase in the quantity of pure alcohol consumed, driven by the switch from beer to wine and especially to RTDs. In 1996, 8.8 litres of pure alcohol were consumed for each person aged 15 and over; by 2011 this had risen to 9.5 litres – or 2.1 standard drinks per person each day.

In 2003–5 alcohol consumption was about the same as that of the US, Canada and Australia, and considerably less than that of Germany, the UK, France and Russia.

Drinking patterns and social impacts

Binge drinking

The level of alcohol drinking in New Zealand does not appear high. Although in 2007–8 85% of people aged 16–64 had drunk alcohol in the past year, almost half of that population (48.1%) drank less than once a week. Fewer than 6% drank every day.

The unusual element was the high incidence of binge drinking. Over 61% of drinkers drank a large amount (six standard drinks for a man or four for a woman) on at least one occasion during the year and 12.6% did so weekly – a higher level than in Australia or the UK.

Who drinks?

The population indulging in such binges had certain characteristics:

  • Age: those who binged at least once a week tended to be young. About a third of men aged 18–24 did so, but only 10% of those aged 55–64. Older people were less likely to be drinkers at all, but if they did drink they were more likely to do so daily, and more moderately.
  • Ethnicity: although a lower proportion of Māori and especially Pacific people were drinkers compared with Europeans, they were inclined to drink a large amount when they did drink. Asian people were light drinkers – only about half drank alcohol at all, and of those, less than 2% binge-drank.
  • Gender: in the early 2000s men consumed about 77% of the alcohol, and males, especially young ones, were more likely to binge drink. But women were catching up fast. Almost 19% of women drinkers aged 18–24 binge-drank weekly. Women tended to drink RTDs (ready-to-drinks) or wine while men drank beer.

The evidence suggests two patterns of drinking in New Zealand. One group, especially the young, did not drink every day, but went on a binge at least once a week. With cheap alcohol available in supermarkets and liquor stores, young drinkers often ‘pre-loaded’ before hitting town, or took time out from the bar to ‘side-load’ with bought drinks – either beer or RTDs.

The second group was predominantly older people who drank more regularly, more often wine or spirits, but rarely went on drunken benders.

Alcoholics Anonymous

In 1946 a New Zealander in Nelson approached the American organisation Alcoholics Anonymous and two years later the first group began in Devonport, Auckland. In 2012 there were over 400 groups and 4,000 members of AA in New Zealand. They held weekly meetings, open to anyone – in the Auckland area alone there are over 100 such meetings. With a principle of anonymity, AA used their famous 12-step process to lead individuals towards sobriety.

Social impact of alcohol

During the 20th century the movement to prohibit alcohol entirely in New Zealand slowly weakened, but there were new concerns about the social impact of the drug. In 1976 the Alcohol Liquor Advisory Council (ALAC) was set up to promote moderation in drinking and reduce the harm from alcohol. In 2012 it was absorbed into the Health Promotion Agency.

Few in the 2000s argued for complete prohibition, and there was acknowledgement of the substantial benefits of drinking alcohol. Drinking was accepted as an important social lubricant and an appropriate accompaniment to celebration. Wine was commonly drunk with meals. Drinking enriched family, sporting and cultural occasions.

But there was increasing evidence of the financial and social cost of drinking. These included:

  • reduced educational performance
  • loss of production through absenteeism and poor performance
  • major health consequences in the form of cancers, heart and liver diseases, high blood pressure, foetal alcohol disorder and mental health problems. The Ministry of Health estimated 3.1% of male deaths and 1.4% of female deaths were alcohol-related
  • heightened aggression released by alcohol, causing offending and violence
  • accidents on the road or involving machinery, and drownings.

In 2008–9 it was estimated that the direct costs of alcohol to government were $500–1,200 million per year.

Odd partners

In 2009 a partnership was formed between leaders of the ‘Notorious’ chapter of the Mongrel Mob and the Salvation Army. The Army provided an intensive seven-week programme to treat alcohol and drug abuse in the gang. After the treatment nine of the 12 members had been alcohol- and drug-free for at least 18 weeks.


In 1984 random breath-testing of drivers for alcohol was introduced and in 1993 compulsory testing of all drivers at checkpoints began. A legal limit of 250 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath (or 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood) applied from 2014 for drivers aged 20 or over (from 2011, nil for those under 20).

In 2010 the Law Commission recommended raising the age for alcohol purchase to 20, reducing opening hours of bars, increasing the tax on and therefore the price of alcohol, and providing local communities with more control over the issuing of licences. New legislation passed in 2012 introduced maximum trading hours and allowed communities to have a say on pricing. The purchasing age and pricing was not changed.

In addition many voluntary groups worked to alleviate the harm caused by alcohol and create a healthy drinking environment.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jock Phillips, 'Alcohol', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 September 2013, updated 1 April 2016