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.

Australian manufacturing has a future. It’s called craft.

Australian manufacturing has a bright future, maybe. If we can look past the past and into the future; if we can get the government out of the way and let us be awesome; and if people can reconcile that we will never drive an Aussie made car again… If all these things happen Australian manufacturing will thrive again.

Australia’s manufacturing future is craft. It’s good things made in small batches. It’s high quality and ingenuity over mass produced and homogeneous. It’s food and booze not clothing and textiles. It’s stuff where we have a natural competitive advantage, not things where we need hand-outs, leg-ups or trade protection.

Now I’m going to warn you that there is a totally self-serving piece of promotion coming up, so if it makes you uncomfortable, look away. But it gives context. It tells a real story, so here it is…

Three weeks ago I received an email that the gin brand I am lucky enough to be partner in, Four Pillars, had won a Double Gold medal at the World Spirits Competition in San Francisco – at our first attempt. Boom! We had made what good judges thought was one of the nine best in the world. We make this gin in small batches in the Yarra Valley and we’ve been at it for less than a year.

Our win received a little bit of publicity and it was bookended by two other brands winning awards that make me see a bright future for Aussie food and booze. A couple weeks before we won our award, a small whisky distillery in Tasmania, Sullivans Cove, was voted the World’s Best Whisky at a serious and credible competition in the UK. You can read the story here. It is a brilliant result for a small distillery that has been going almost 20 years.

And then last week Cobram Estate, Australia’s biggest olive oil producer, jagged a couple of international awards at a global food showcase in New York. And this was the second year in a row it has happened. And yes, thanks for asking, I know and like the Cobram Estate guys and I’ve met and tasted the Sullivan’s Cove drinks and yes I am massive fans of them both.

It is important to note we are craft, not “cottage” industries. We are serious brands wanting to take great products to the world. But with one simple caveat:

PLEASE, can I beg our Treasurer and his mates TO GET OUT OF OUR WAY.

Get this – the Federal government makes almost THREE TIMES more revenue out of one bottle of our gin than we, the producer, do. Yep that’s right. We make around $12 per bottle (and then we take out COGs and expenses) and the Feds get $24 excise plus $5 GST – so close to $30 PER BOTTLE! It’s INSANE.

And it makes Australia the highest taxed spirits industry in the world. An American craft distiller is taxed 10 TIMES less than we are. Yes, granted, we like Austrade but this sort of punitive tax regime HAS to be fixed to allow more of us to flourish and employ many more thousands of people in our craft industry.

And don’t start me on us being part of the alcohol “problem” this country supposedly faces (which it doesn’t, but that’s another story).

OK, political soapboxing complete.

Here is a message – to the cheese and ice cream makers, the olive oil producers, the distillers, the winemakers, the brewers, the bakers and the tea and coffee makers… WE, yes WE are the future of manufacturing for this country. We manufacture things that are the world’s best and we showcase them proudly across the globe. And we win. We show that Australia is a sophisticated, tasty, discerning, clever, creative and crafty country.

Long may Aussie manufacturing reign. I reckon we should all drink to that. Who’s with me?