Tag Archives: liquor licensing

Drinking & Melbourne’s Culture

Over drinks at an exhibition opening last year I mentioned to someone that I should write about buying alcohol and the arts. Specifically the effects of liquor licensing laws in Victoria on Melbourne’s culture. Now, this sounds like the title for a thesis rather than a blog post, so I’m only going to sketch out a bit of background and look at some legislation that has had recent impact.


From the colonial domination of Melbourne City Council by publicans to the power of the Temperance movement at the turn of the twentieth century liquor licensing laws has had a major impact on Melbourne’s culture. The six o’clock swill creating a dull centre of the city Melbourne’s culture has been influenced by liquor licensing legislation. Melbourne Little Band scene of the late 70s and early 80s were the result of a legacy of large inner city licensed venues with decreasing patronage due to a population shift to the suburbs. More recent changes to liquor laws, gaming laws and security laws have drastically curtailed Melbourne’s little live music scene.

Changes in the late-nineteen nineties opened up opportunities for new art galleries partially funded with their bar at exhibition openings. Many small art galleries, like the one that I was drinking at that night, use their openings to create a pop-up bar. It also influenced the creation of Melbourne’s now iconic inner city lane ways

Alan Davies, in his blog The Urbanist, argues that these changes were due to the implementation of changes recommended in the 1995 Nieuwenhuysen Report on the Liquor Control Act. The Nieuwenhuysen Report recommended a more European approach to the sale of alcohol as opposed to the monopolistic approach of earlier Australian governments that charged high license fees that restricted competition.

Davis reports that: “There were 571 on-premises (restaurant) licences in Victoria in 1986, but by 2004 there were 5,136.”

In Broadsheet Craig Allchin architect, urban designer and director of Six Degrees Architecture told Timothy Moore in “How Melbourne Found Its Laneways” that: “The Victorian state premier at the time, Jeff Kennett, was amending the laws to coincide with the opening of Melbourne’s first casino, which was designed to have a range of bars and restaurants along its river frontage. The casino’s owners didn’t want to take the risk of operating under a single liquor license, which could have been revoked if there was an incident of bad behaviour. They wanted to spread the risk. The state government created a new “small bar” license that suited the casino’s needs, providing it with several small-bar licenses. The unintentional result of the reform, however, was that it allowed lots of other small bars to set up all over the city.”

Ending the requirement of a bar to serve food made it possible for the many bars to open up in Melbourne’s laneways that transformed the centre of the city. Not that these effects were intended or foreseen but it is a good example of the butterfly effect of a small change to legislation on Melbourne’s culture.



Art Bars

The idea of an art bar is an appealing concept. Let us take a quick pub crawl through modern art history: to the bars of Montmartre where Toulouse-Lautrec drank, to the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, to the cafés of Paris where the Surrealists drank, to the Cedar Bar in New York where the Abstract Expressionists drank, to the Colony Room in London where Francis Bacon drank. Any bar will do. It is not the atmosphere, nor the type, nor the quantity of alcohol that matters but the quality company with which it is consumed. What is important is the culture of the drinkers and the culture of drinking.

Lord Ivy Art Lounge has a good location amongst the art galleries of Flinders Lane and full-page adverts in Art Almanac. However when I visited the art was too bland for my taste. Fad Gallery Bar also advertises an art connection but it has never been open when I’ve been in the area. There are plenty of bars in the city with a more artistic atmosphere. And there are plenty of pubs and bars in Melbourne that have had the occasional art exhibition.

There are many pubs and bars that have contributed to Melbourne’s music scene (not just rock or jazz but many kinds of music, even experimental music). They have also contributed to Melbourne’s live comedy scene, theatre scene and other vibrant aspects of our culture. Victoria’s liquor licensing laws have not helped Melbourne’s once world famous live music scene. There are only a few places left that I once played with my band still have live music – they have all closed or become ‘Irish’ pubs. Thousands of words have been written about the closure of the Tote in January 2010 in both newspapers, like The Age, and blogs, like Man About Town.

The changes in Victoria that have allowed more liquor licences in the city have had an impact on the culture, some artist run spaces and small galleries partially subsidize their operation with the licensed sale of alcohol. I don’t know if the argument of increased availability leading to increased consumption is anything more than a simplistic analysis of complex behaviour. Certainly prohibition has never worked to decrease consumption. The 2 am lockout did not change anything. The old restricted drinking hours and premises of the old Australian 5 o’clock swill did not create a positive drinking culture.

I prefer the liquor licence standards of Europe rather that Australia. Current Victorian legislation reminds me of the prohibition in 1915 of the most famous artistic drink, absinthe, by the United States and most European countries. It is simply moral panic and lacks supporting evidence. The re-introduction of absinthe to the world market has not had any measurable negative impact, nor will changes to the current laws. (I find that a metal tea strainer is an adequate substitute for the ornate absinthe spoons to suspend a sugar cube on.)

For more information about Melbourne’s bars, pubs and clubs read Melbourne Nightlife Blog or My, Aching Head (or one of the hundreds of blogs that review that scene.

%d bloggers like this: