Booze Myth Busting

OK. So I’m a bit cross about this continuing flood of misinformation about booze and tax. Tax and booze. So here I go again. Maybe grab a drink before you take a read – I’m fired up.

Let’s start with the obvious conflicts.

I’m a distiller, well I don’t actually make the stuff but I part-own a joint that does. I’ve been peddling booze in some shape or another for the best part of 20 years – that includes beer, wine, spirits and cider. I’ve been intoxicated more than once before and have acted like a clown in public and in private, under the influence and as sober as a judge.

I’ve seen alcohol impact lives of people close to me in a very negative way; I’ve regularly wondered whether my drinking and my working so closely in the industry is a poor choice – whether I should do something more positive in society. But it doesn’t take very long for me to think again.

The distillery where we make Four Pillars gin has a bar that is open on average 60 hours per week, 363 days per year. We have had more than 50,000 visitors since we opened in late 2015. There have been no reported stoushes, not a single issue with drunken behaviour or a single arrest for drink-driving. Sure we’ve sent a few people on their way with wise counsel and much caution, but we have served 30,000 gin and tonic paddles without incident. It’s a wonderful, social, clever, inclusive place – and I bloody love it and am incredibly proud of it.

I am the President of the Australian Distillers Association, so my allegiances are obvious. I also work in the field of marketing and PR so know a thing or two about how to spin a story and massage some facts to suit my purposes.

So BEWARE. I might just be the Devil in Disguise.

However, unlike many people who have an opinion about booze, I’m not pretending to be something I’m not. I’m not in disguise. I’m out and I’m proud. Proud to work in an industry I love.

But here’s the thing, and right now my top is about to blow. In the words of Peter Finch, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.

The demonisation of booze; its producers, sellers, marketers and drinkers by an INCREDIBLY small group of folks who wish Prohibition back upon us is simply TOO BLOODY MUCH.

Believe it or not there are people – unusually loud, ill-informed people, on the fringes of our moderate society who want to stop good, decent people having fun and a drink. God knows why, but they do.

First, let’s get this right. Australia is NOT a booze-filled, alcohol-enraged nation of piss-heads.

Maybe we were once upon a time but we sure as hell are not now. Per capita consumption of alcohol in Australia right now is at a 50 year LOW. That’s a fact.* It’s not double what it was a decade ago as quoted in several recent reports. That’s a complete and utter fabrication.

And alcohol tax isn’t too low, in fact it’s incredibly high. It’s just badly weighted between beer, wine and spirits. That should be perfectly simple for ANYBODY to understand, even a politician, if they have stepped into one bar and purchased one drink any time in the past decade…

Let’s keep it simple.

Beer is probably taxed about right, cheap wine too low (particularly the oft-abused large format casks) and spirits too high. But again, you’d expect me to say that – I’m a distiller after all.

Except it’s EXACTLY what EVERY single report, study or senate committee has found over the past 15 years. Even (and god help me here) the ANTI-ALCOHOL lobby, the nanny-staters, the neo-prohibitionists and the lunatics who think booze is the new cigarettes agree on that one. Go on. Ask them.

Moderate consumption of alcohol is not a bad thing – even doctors say it can be good for you. The industry employs around 165,000 people directly and indirectly through all its channels. It pays more than $5billion in taxes to the government coffers and heaven forbid it adds some colour and flavour to many people’s lives. And it tries really hard to act responsibly because it is important to do so. And also we know, all too well, that we are always being watched – so more often than not we are on our best behaviour.

But like everything that could do us harm; gambling, driving, crossing the road whilst listening to podcasts, sky-diving, surfing with sharks, snowboarding, crowdsurfing at a dance party, lunching with an NRL player or executive, flying a plane, and many more daily activities, it needs to be approached with just a little bit of old-school sensible-ness. Maybe even wariness.

We do not want to strip all that is fun from the fabric of Australian society. Or do we?

Did you know it was already too dangerous in Sydney to drink a Negroni after midnight? And that’s a FACT. Did you know a single malt whisky and a few ice cubes is not considered an acceptable beverage at a five star hotel after an event if it ends a minute past midnight?

Can you imagine what a “normal”, non-violent, alcohol drinking human from anywhere else on this planet might think of these rules?

I don’t actually mind sensible restrictions on advertising and promotion. I even think a few initiatives over the past few years have helped us moderate our drinking culture to where it is becoming a “less but better” approach. And yes, I recognise that alcohol abuse continues to cost our society too much.

But enough is enough. I don’t need some Wally from Canberra telling me when, where and how I can have my fun. I don’t need my bottle of gin to be twice the price in Healesville (where it is made) than in Los Angeles, simply because our local tax system is a shambles.

And I don’t need to be told that the booze industry is an evil empire run by alcoholic Svengalis trying to coerce you into getting drunk. Because it’s bullshit.

You don’t want to drink? Good on you. No dramas here. As it happens, I have quite a few mates who don’t drink or do so incredibly rarely. But I have quite a few more who do. And do it sensibly – most of the time. And that should be good enough for the do-gooders to cut us a break.

Here’s a deal. I won’t come to any of your preachy, anti-alcohol, fun-police chats if you don’t come to my bar.

* In 2015 Australians drank on average 9.71L of pure alcohol per capita, in 1975 that number was 13.1L. These figures are from the World Health Organisation. This number puts us around No.20 in the world for per capita booze consumption surrounded by nations like Spain, Switzerland, New Zealand, Great Britain and Denmark. And yes, I acknowledge this figure is well ahead of Indonesia who drink the least in the world.

We Aussies are no gold medallists in the Grog Olympics

There are certain things in life that if we are told often enough we simply believe to be true.

Recently we’ve been told, endlessly, that Australia has a “booze-soaked culture”, that we have an “alcohol abuse epidemic”.

And guess what? It’s JUST NOT TRUE.

On Australia Day I was at a party like most of you and I asked pretty much everyone I ran into where they would rank Aussies on a global table of booze hounds.

Most had us in the top five – and every single person had us in the Top 10. Why wouldn’t they?

And I was the same. Until I checked the stats.

I swear to god if drinking booze was an Olympic sport we’d be in the middle of a Royal Commission right now because our place on the global pecking order beggars belief.

According to the World Health Organisation figures published in 2011 we are 44th in the developed world on overall per capita consumption of all alcohol. Sure we are number 21 in beer and number 25 in wine but we are ranked 92nd in the consumption of spirits (which frankly I wish I had known before creating my own gin brand last year ).

I’m not in any way suggesting we should be shooting for a higher spot on the table, I’m just craving a little bit of balance – I just wish some politicians and commentators would put on their sensible hats and get out of the sun.

More Australians these days are drinking less but better and that is evidenced by the multitude of small bars and expensive craft drinks. We are taxed and policed more than any drinking culture in the world. And as for the policing, well we deserve it and tolerate it so we can try to avoid the tragedies of recent months.

But we are not global booze hounds, we are NOT, on the whole, serial alcohol abusers. We most definitely have issues with binge drinking, alcohol and drug related violence and sometimes handing out licences to people who probably ought not have the privilege.

If you want the booze gold medallists then take yourself to Moldova (overall), Czech Republic (beer), Luxembourg (wine) or South Korea (spirits) to see cultures soaked in booze.

We have our social problems just like everyone else and we should continue to make sensible and reasoned decisions to better our society. Half baked, knee jerk policy on the run is not the way to make our city or state a better place to live.

Stuart Gregor runs marketing firm Liquid Ideas and owns a gin business and a small winery.

Alcohol-fuelled violence – I’m not so sure.

I just Googled the phrase “alcohol-fuelled violence” and got 360,000 results – yep 360,000.

I’ve been truly gobsmacked as much by the very acts that have been perpetrated in Sydney as the hysteria and poor nomenclature used to describe them. Because unless I am out of my head on some sort of weird psychedelic myself, these acts are not merely alcohol-fuelled, they are fuelled by the EPIDEMIC in Sydney of amphetamines, uppers and steroids.

The fact is that NO-ONE can go on an eight hour drinking binge and be capable of throwing much of a punch. They are more at risk of falling in front of a cab, spewing in the very same vehicle or walking into a wall. Acts of serious and consequential violence committed by people in the vast majority of these recent cases are thanks to the dual mechanisms of plenty of booze and a few “bumps” of whatever choice of drug keeps the perpetrator going longer. The sheer intensity of the recent violence is proof enough to this untrained eye that there is a lot more than bourbon and beer fuelling the fights. I am not making light of anything, but let’s be honest, fights fuelled exclusively by booze tend to be as comedic as they are consequential. Punches fly everywhere and rarely hit a target. When they do, of course it’s a tragedy. But I just don’t reckon that’s what I’m seeing right now.

It might be crystal meth or ice – if you think this insidious drug is strictly the domain of bikers and “westies” you’d be wrong – it is all over the inner city. Then throw in a few Red Bulls, a couple of lines of coke if you’re fancy, maybe a key of speed or some GHB – anything to keep you at the bar feeling good. These drugs are EVERYWHERE. Ask your kids.

If you are a body builder, chances are you’re already on the steroids and they can make you plenty angry with a little bit of weekend help from your recreational drug of choice.

Look where this is happening. Where bars and pubs have been for the history of the city – but today where drug dealers and crooks reign supreme.
I just don’t understand why alcohol is seen by the vast majority of people as the sole problem here.

Of course I am compromised – I make wine and gin, I promote beer and all manner of drinks and just like EVERY SINGLE other purveyor of booze I want, in fact now more than ever, I NEED, people to consume my drinks as they always have – with some sense of personal responsibility. The vast majority of publicans, club owners and bar operators feel exactly the same.

We aren’t drinking more booze than we did a decade ago. More people, in fact, are drinking less but better. That’s a good thing. At least for those of us who think a moderate, and maybe occasional semi-binge, drink is OK for both us and society.

We love small bars and we adore a civilized drinking culture. I’m OK with these new laws as proposed by Barry O’Farrell today, not because I want to leave bars at 1.30am (which as a 45 year old is past my bedtime anyway) but because Sydney is NOT a civilized place to take a drink late at night. It’s NOT Seville or Rome. It’s a city riddled with a really dreadful drug sub-culture – the cops know this, the politicians know this and it’s no surprise that the recent spate of gun crime, which is ALWAYS related to the drug trade, is happening at exactly the same time as this epidemic of drug and alcohol fuelled violence.

It’s harder to crack the drug dealing code than it is to close pubs early. It’s easier to police the streets of the Rocks than it is to bust organised, trans-continental crime. In other words, it’s easier to be seen doing something than working behind the scenes trying to catch the real criminals. I get it.

Licensees who allow drugs to be dealt on or around their premises should be stripped of the privilege of having a licence and thrown in jail with their dealer mates. Those who don’t control the consumption on their premises should likewise face serious punishment. The fact is, a rogue publican loves a few amphetamines hanging around the pub. It means his punters stay longer and drink more. And then they go out and belt someone. It’s a bloody tragedy. But it’s not all the fault of booze.