Alcohol in New Zealand

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A selection of New Zealand wines

Alcohol has been consumed in New Zealand since the arrival of Europeans. The most popular alcoholic beverage is beer. The legal age to purchase alcohol is 18.[1]


Early history[edit]

There is no oral tradition or archaeological evidence of Māori using alcohol before the arrival of Europeans.

Captain James Cook brewed a beer while visiting New Zealand in order to combat scurvy aboard ship.[2] It was brewed on Saturday 27 March 1773 on Resolution Island, in Dusky Sound, Fiordland from small branches of rimu and manuka, wort and molasses.[3] James Cook wrote:

"We also began to brew beer from the branches or leaves of a tree, which much resembles the American black-spruce. From the knowledge I had of this tree, and the similarity it bore to the spruce, I judged that, with the addition of inspissated juice of wort and molasses, it would make a very wholesome beer, and supply the want of vegetables, which this place did not afford; and the event proved that I was not mistaken."[4]

Wine making and vine growing go back to colonial times in New Zealand. British Resident and keen oenologist James Busby was, as early as 1836, attempting to produce wine at his land in Waitangi.[5] In 1851 New Zealand's oldest existing vineyard was established by French Roman Catholic missionaries at Mission Estate in Hawke's Bay.[6] Due to economic (the importance of animal agriculture and the protein export industry), legislative (prohibition and the temperance) and cultural factors (the overwhelming predominance of beer and spirit drinking British immigrants), wine was for many years a marginal activity in terms of economic importance. Dalmatian immigrants arriving in New Zealand at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century brought with them viticultural knowledge and planted vineyards in West and North Auckland. Typically, their vineyards produced sherry and port for the palates of New Zealanders of the time, and table wine for their own community.

The three factors that held back the development of the industry simultaneously underwent subtle but historic changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973, Britain entered the European Economic Community, which required the ending of historic trade terms for New Zealand meat and dairy products. This led ultimately to a dramatic restructuring of the agricultural economy. Before this restructuring was fully implemented, diversification away from traditional protein products to products with potentially higher economic returns was explored. Vines, which produce best in low moisture and low soil fertility environments, were seen as suitable for areas that had previously been marginal pasture. The end of the 1960s saw the end of the New Zealand institution of the "six o'clock swill", where pubs were open for only an hour after the end of the working day and closed all Sunday. The same legislative reform saw the introduction of BYO (bring your own) licences for restaurants.

Finally, the late 1960s and early 1970s noted the rise of the "overseas experience," where young New Zealanders travelled and lived and worked overseas, predominantly in Europe. As a cultural phenomenon, the overseas experience predates the rise of New Zealand's premium wine industry, but by the 1960s a distinctly New Zealand identity had developed and the passenger jet made the overseas experience possible for large numbers of New Zealanders who experienced first-hand the premium wine cultures of Europe.

Temperance movement[edit]

Between 1836 and 1919, the New Zealand temperance movement became a powerful and popular lobby group, as similar movements did in the UK and the USA. In 1919 at a national referendum poll, prohibition gained 49% of the vote and was only defeated when the votes of returned servicemen were counted.[7]

Well known temperance activists in New Zealand include William Fox, Frank Isitt, Leonard Isitt, Elizabeth McCombs, James McCombs, Kate Sheppard, Robert Stout and Tommy Taylor.

Alcohol law[edit]

First liquor laws[edit]

The liquor laws of New Zealand begin with the Colonisation of New Zealand and the implementation of English Common Law to New Zealand between 1840 and 1842, when New Zealand was jurisdictionally part of the Colony of New South Wales.[8]

Laws for Māori
The first laws prohibiting Māori people from consuming alcohol in New Zealand were established between 1847 and 1878. Laws were passed due to the common belief the Māori were susceptible to alcohol abuse.[8]

For over a century, from the 1847 laws to 1948, Māori were restricted to buying alcohol from off-licensed vendors. In 1948 Parliament repealed most discriminatory measures, in part due to pressure from Māori servicemen returning from war.[8]

The King Country had an alcohol ban from when the predominantly Māori area was opened to pakeha in 1883 to 1953.

Laws for women
Prior to 1961, Women were generally restricted to private bars in hotels as legislation allowed licencees to refuse them service in the (cheaper) public bars.

In 1911 women could no longer be barmaids (with exemptions for existing barmaids and for relations of publicans).[9]

Regulation and licensing[edit]

In 1842 the first licensing system was introduced to New Zealand. This licensing system was mainly based on the then-provincial councils, however this changed in 1873 when legislature was passed to establish a national licensing system.[8]

Until the 1990s off-licence alcohol sales where restricted to hotels, bottle shops, and private clubs were also allowed to sell alcohol for take home consumption. In 1990 supermarkets were granted permission to sell wine but not beer, but under amendments made in 1999,[10] supermarkets and some smaller grocers now had permission to extend their liquor licences to sell beer as well as wine.

The 1999 legislation also legalized the sale of alcohol on Sundays for the first time in nearly 120 years.[10]

Licensing Act, 1881
The Licensing Act of 1881 was enacted due to the dissolution of the Provincial Councils of New Zealand to centralize the inconsistent statutes of the former Provinces.[8]

The Licensing Act of 1881 banned some entertainments, including dancing girls. Section 127 stated: ‘Whereas a practice exists in certain parts of the colony of hiring women and young girls to dance in rooms and places where liquors are sold: any contract by which any females shall be hired to dance in any such room or place shall be null and void.’ Proprietors risked having their establishment identified as a ‘disorderly house’ (a brothel), receiving a fine or losing their liquor license if they hired dancing girls.[8]

The Act banned alcohol sales on Sundays, Christmas Day, and Good Friday.[8]

Legal ages[edit]

The first registered consumption age limits were imposed for the first time meaning nobody under the age of 18 could drink in a public bar and nobody under the age of 13 could buy alcohol to take home. The Licensing Act of 1881 created a minimum age of 16 to purchase alcohol in a bar, however did not impose a minimum age to purchase alcohol to be taken away.[8] The legal drinking age was again amended in 1910 when the legal age to drink in hotels was increased to 21 - however minors could still buy alcohol to take home until 1914 when the age for both on- and off-licence purchase was set at 21.

In 1969 the purchase age was lowered from 21 to 20. (although 18-year-olds were allowed to drink in bars from 1990 on certain conditions.)

In 1999 the legal purchasing age was lowered from 20 to 18 - at which it remains despite despite several calls and attempts at legislation to raise it.

It has never been illegal for a minor to drink alcohol in their own home on supervision of their parents or guardians. Parental consent is required to supply alcohol to a person under 18.[11]

Six o'clock swill[edit]

During a significant part of the 20th century, New Zealand hotels shut their public bars at 6 pm. A culture of heavy drinking, the "six o'clock swill", developed during the time between finishing work at 5 pm and the mandatory closing time only an hour later.

This six o'clock closing was introduced during the First World War, partly as an attempt to improve public morality and partly as a war austerity measure. It was made permanent in 1919 owing to pressure from the then powerful temperance movement.

While the new law was supposed to curb drunkenness and crime and to send men home early to encourage family life, it in fact had the opposite effect. It created a culture of binge drinking where men would finish work at 5 pm and had only one hour to drink as much alcohol as possible before closing.

In a national referendum in 1967 voters supported a move to 10 o’clock closing - and the "swill" ended on 9 October 1967.[12]

Current alcohol law[edit]

The current law is the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012.[13][14][15]

Special events[edit]

Under New Zealand law, pubs looking to operate after the 3-4am liquor sales ban will have to apply for special licensing from their local board.[16]

Licensing trusts[edit]

Licensing trusts, under New Zealand law, are community-owned companies with a monopoly on the development of premises licensed for the sale of alcoholic beverages and associated accommodation in an area.[17]

Thirty licencing trusts were established between 1944 and 1975. They were strongly supported by ministers Peter Fraser and Rex Mason. [18]

Beer production[edit]

Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink in New Zealand, accounting for 63% of available alcohol for sale.[19] New Zealand is ranked 21st in beer consumption per capita, at around 75.5 litres per person per annum. The vast majority of beer produced in New Zealand is a type of lager, either pale or amber in colour, and between 4%–5% alcohol by volume.

19th and 20th centuries[edit]

The first commercial brewery in New Zealand was established in 1835 by Joel Samuel Polack in Kororareka (now Russell) in the Bay of Islands.

Speight's brewery in Dunedin

In the 1930s, the New Zealander Morton W. Coutts invented the continuous fermentation process. This, and the culture of the six o'clock swill, was to have an influence on the styles of beer brewed and drunk in New Zealand which shifted from ales to lagers, using continuous fermentation. The style of beer made by this method has become known as New Zealand Draught.

During the same period, there was a gradual consolidation of breweries, such that by the 1970s virtually all brewing concerns in New Zealand were owned by either Lion Breweries or Dominion Breweries.

From the 1980s small boutique or microbreweries started to emerge, and consequently the range of beer styles being brewed increased. The earliest was Mac's Brewery, started in 1981 in Nelson.

21st century[edit]

In recent years, pale and amber lager, the largest alcoholic drinks sector in terms of volume sales, have been on a downward trend as a result of a declining demand for standard and economy products.[20]

Conversely, ale production in New Zealand is primarily undertaken by small independent breweries & brewpubs, the Shakespeare Brewery in Auckland city being the first opened in 1986 for the 'craft' or 'premium' sector of the beer market. In 2010, this 'craft/premium' sector grew by 11%, to around 8% of the total beer market.[19] This has been in a declining beer market, where availability of beer has dropped 7% by volume in the two previous years.

Craft beer and microbreweries were blamed for a 15 million litre drop in alcohol sales overall in 2012, with Kiwis opting for higher-priced premium beers over cheaper brands.[21]

The craft beer market in New Zealand is varied and progressive, with a full range of ale & lager styles of beer being brewed. New Zealand is fortunate in that it lies in the ideal latitude for barley and hops cultivation. A breeding programme had developed new hop varieties unique to New Zealand,[22] many of these new hops have become mainstays in New Zealand craft beer.

Given the small market and relatively high number of breweries, many breweries have spare capacity. A recent trend has seen the rise of contract brewing, where a brewing company contracts to use space in existing breweries to bring the beer to the market. Examples of contract brewers include Funk Estate, Epic Brewing Company and Yeastie Boys.[23]

Over 2011 and 2012, New Zealand faced a shortage of hops, which affected several brewers countrywide, and was mainly due to a hop shortage in North America and an increase in demand for New Zealand hops overseas.[24][25]

Wine production[edit]

First steps[edit]

In the 1970s, Montana in Marlborough started producing wines which were labelled by year of production (vintage) and grape variety (in the style of wine producers in Australia). The first production of a Sauvignon blanc of great note appears to have occurred in 1977. Also produced in that year were superior quality wines of Muller Thurgau, Riesling and Pinotage. The excitement created from these successes and from the early results of Cabernet Sauvignon from Auckland and Hawkes Bay launched the industry with ever-increasing investment.

Sauvignon blanc breakthrough[edit]

A bottle of Jackson Estate sauvignon blanc from New Zealand

In the 1980s, wineries in New Zealand, especially in the Marlborough region, began producing outstanding, some critics said unforgettable, Sauvignon blanc. "New Zealand Sauvignon blanc is like a child who inherits the best of both parents—exotic aromas found in certain Sauvignon blancs from the New World and the pungency and limy acidity of an Old World Sauvignon blanc like Sancerre from the Loire Valley" (Oldman, p. 152). One critic said that drinking one's first New Zealand Sauvignon blanc was like having sex for the first time (Taber, p. 244). "No other region in the world can match Marlborough, the northeastern corner of New Zealand's South Island, which seems to be the best place in the world to grow Sauvignon blanc grapes" (Taber, p. 244).

See also[edit]


  • Oldman, Mark. Oldman's Guide to Outsmarting Wine. NY: Penguin, 2004.
  • Rachman, Gideon. "The globe in a glass". The Economist, 16 December 1999.
  • Sogg, Daniel. "Standout Sauvignons", Wine Spectator, 10 November 2005, p. 108-111.
  • Taber, George M. Judgment of Paris: California vs France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine. NY: Scribner, 2005.
  1. ^ [1] Archived April 27, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ "Captain Cook's Method of Making Spruce Beer". Victoria University of Wellington. Retrieved 10 May 2019.
  3. ^ James Cook, A Voyage Towards the South Pole and Round the World, Volume 1.
  4. ^ Oxford Companion to Wine. "New Zealand". Archived from the original on 2015-02-15. Retrieved 2014-06-18.
  5. ^ "Hawkes Bay Wineries". Jasons Travel Media. Archived from the original on 2012-08-02. Retrieved 2014-06-18.
  6. ^ "Voting for prohibition", retrieved 14 June 2011
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h Christoffel, Paul (15 December 2014). "Liquor laws - Early liquor laws". Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. p. 1. Retrieved 27 September 2016.
  8. ^ "Flashback: when New Zealand banned barmaids?". Stuff (Fairfax). 1 December 2018.
  9. ^ a b Government of New Zealand, Her Majesties. "Sale of Liquor Amendment Act, 1999". Legislation New Zealand. Retrieved 28 September 2016.
  10. ^ "Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012".
  11. ^ "The end of the 'six o'clock swill'". NZ History. Retrieved 10 May 2019.
  12. ^ "Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012". Retrieved 10 May 2019.
  13. ^ "Sale & supply of alcohol". NZ Government. Retrieved 10 May 2019.
  14. ^ "Alcohol – laws and penalties". NZ Police.
  15. ^
  16. ^ "Opposition's voice heard on liquor bill". The New Zealand Herald (NZPA). 12 November 2010. Retrieved 12 November 2010.
  17. ^ Licencing Trusts by Bernard Teuhen in "Policy Quarterly" February 2018, Vol 14 No 1 pages 68-73
  18. ^ a b Carroll, Joanne (20 March 2011). "Beer hops off buyers' lists". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 19 September 2011.
  19. ^ Alcoholic Drinks in New Zealand
  20. ^ "Craft beer sales increase by 20 million litres". 3 News NZ. February 26, 2013. Archived from the original on April 14, 2013.
  21. ^ [2] NZ Hops website
  22. ^ "News | Brewers Guild of New Zealand". Retrieved 2013-08-01.
  23. ^ Jono Galuszka (2011-10-01). "Beer Brewers Hit By Hop Shortage". Retrieved 2013-08-01.
  24. ^ Peter Watson And Fairfax (2012-10-23). "Co-op confident of avoiding hop shortage". Retrieved 2013-08-01.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]