THE NATION'S great cliche of pubs filled with beer-swilling men is a thing of the past. We are guzzling less of the stuff than at any time in the past 61 years.
But as we have been switching to wine our alcohol intake has been climbing, partly because wine contains more alcohol than beer and partly because the alcohol content of wine has been climbing while the alcohol in beer has been sliding.
New estimates from the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggest we drank 107 litres of beer per adult over 15 years of age in the year to June 2009, down from a peak exceeding 190 litres in the mid-1970s. But we drank an all-time record 29 litres of wine, double the amount in the mid-1970s.
Were it not for the very clear one-off slide in spirits consumption that followed the introduction of the alcopops tax in April 2008, we would have been ingesting more alcohol than at any time in the past decade.
The alcopops tax crushed the premixed drinks business in 2008-09, slicing 30 per cent off sales and cutting consumption of alcohol in that form by 5.6 million litres. Partially offsetting this, alcohol sold as spirits rose by 2.7 million litres.
''The industry was clever about encouraging people to shift their preferences,'' said Tanya Chikritzhs of the National Drug Research Institute.
''They offered free two-litre bottles of Coke if you bought a bottle of Jim Beam, encouraging people to mix their own. As you would expect we had an immediate rapid decline in sales of alcopops, some increase in sales of other spirits but we are likely to go back to steady increases.''
Sipping a glass of sauvignon blanc in a popular Sydney watering hole, Sam Ciccia, a construction supervisor, said that while many of his mates still drank beer he never went near it. ''I've never liked the taste, to be honest. I much prefer a glass of white or red. Occasionally someone will make a crack, but most of my mates don't think twice. Some of them don't drink beer either.''
The 2008-09 financial year was one of only two in the past decade in which alcohol consumption fell. But pushing alcohol consumption up has been a relentless increase in the alcohol content of wine, from about 11 per cent in the 1970s to 13 per cent today.
''You can't get a red under 14 per cent pretty much,'' said Associate Professor Chikritzhs. ''Some are even 17 or 18 per cent. It's part of an international trend toward richer tastes.''
Wine makers are free to boost their alcohol content without a tax penalty because wine is taxed by volume and price rather content, a concession the Henry Tax Review recommended be abolishing.
By contrast, beer manufacturers have been cutting their alcohol content to cope with a steadily rising indexed alcohol tax.
The Bureau of Statistics says in the past five years the average alcohol content of beer has fallen from 4.75 to 4.69 per cent. Alcohol consumption per person rose throughout the past decade until 2008-09, when the alcopops tax cut helped it fall 1.2 per cent.
Officially an average of 10.4 litres of alcohol a year is being swallowed by those over 15, figure Associate Professor Chikritzhs believes to be an underestimate and to understate the growth in alcohol consumption.
''The bureau's figures exclude home brew, home wine making, home distilling and also commercial cider sales. Anecdotal evidence suggests they are climbing.''