Executive Director of the NZ Alcohol Beverages Council, Virginia Nicholls, explains how New Zealand’s drinking culture is changing for the better.

Shoppers stocking up on beer, wine and spirits is a common sight at this time of year.

An upcoming review of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act aims to reduce harmful drinking by making it easier for local authorities to reduce hours of sale, but real change to our drinking culture is actually already happening without a single line of legislative amendment.

That’s why if you look more closely at the trolley you may well see a new choice of beverage, because the drinking habits of the country once home to that phenomenon called the 6 o’clock swill are changing – and that change is not being led by a reduction in the
number of liquor outlets or supply.

Instead, more New Zealanders are sipping and savouring their beverage, and turning on to low and no-alcohol beverages, in a big way.

Remember the days of low-alcohol beer being shunned in favour of its full-strength cousin? Well, just like the 6 o’clock swill, those days are over. In recent years New Zealand breweries, distilleries and winemakers have invested heavily in innovation to enhance their no/low alcohol offerings, with greater choice and better flavour than ever before.

The results of this innovation mean New Zealanders have a wider range of no/low alcohol beverages to enjoy than ever before, and of better quality. It’s clear we’re drinking them.

Low-alcohol beer sales have increased 1116% since 2016, and zero-alcohol beer saw a 322% increase in sales in just one year. Low-alcohol beverages now comprise 15% of the total portfolio of one local brewery.

Winemakers and spirits producers aren’t far behind, with many developing or producing lighter options.

This local demand for quality is also helping Aotearoa carve out a niche internationally for distinctive premium beverages. One need only look at the rise of the boutique gin distillery, not to mention the high prices per bottle realised by New Zealand wines in key offshore markets, the United States and United Kingdom.

Demand here mirrors the global trend. A poll of 1,250 New Zealanders in December 2022 found 56% of respondents drink low-alcohol beverages at least some of the time, and many of us prefer low alcohol beverages.

The factors driving this shift to sip and savour and no and low alcohol beverages are many. Some of us choose no or low alcohol beverages because we are driving. Some of us find it easier to track our alcohol consumption, and some are more mindful of health and wellbeing. Whatever the reason, it is clear that most New Zealanders today are far more informed about the effects of harmful drinking and are choosing to reduce alcohol intake while still enjoying a beverage.

This focus on enjoying a beverage is behind another big shift in our drinking habits away from quantity towards quality. Many New Zealanders are choosing a drink that may cost a little more, such as a craft beer, a fine wine, a cocktail or premium spirit, but we’re drinking them more slowly to enjoy the experience.

Not only does this result in a better experience, it means a reduced alcohol consumption as well.

So this summer season, join the shift towards healthier drinking by selecting a no or low-alcohol option some of the time. Or treat yourself to a craft beer, special wine or cocktail to enjoy at a relaxed pace.

Make sure you put in place host responsibility measures for guests by providing food along with a variety of beverages which may include beer, wine and spirits along with low and no-alcohol options. Don’t serve alcoholic beverages to anyone who is becoming intoxicated, and make sure your friends and family get home safely.

My thanks to the NZ Herald and the ODT for printing this opinion.

About the New Zealand Alcohol Beverages Council
The NZ Alcohol Beverages Council is a pan-industry group that comments publicly on
matters relating to the beer, wine, spirits and beverage industry. It focuses on supporting
responsible alcohol consumption and advocates for a fair and balanced debate on alcohol
regulation in New Zealand.