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NZILLI President Murray Clearwater displays two bottles of ready-to-drink alcohol (RTD), which he purchased for $15. (Photo: NZ Police Journal)
NZILLI President Murray Clearwater displays two bottles of ready-to-drink alcohol (RTD), which he purchased for $15. (Photo: NZ Police Journal)

SocietyJune 5, 2018

A brief history of Big Foot, New Zealand’s most ridiculous RTD

NZILLI President Murray Clearwater displays two bottles of ready-to-drink alcohol (RTD), which he purchased for $15. (Photo: NZ Police Journal)
NZILLI President Murray Clearwater displays two bottles of ready-to-drink alcohol (RTD), which he purchased for $15. (Photo: NZ Police Journal)

For a brief moment, New Zealand was home to Big Foot, a mythically potent RTD served in a giant bottle and apparently aimed squarely at teens. Don Rowe talks to the brain behind it.  

Gather round children, I’m going to speak to you of the days before the voluntary RTD code. A time when Billy Mav’s ran at 11%, when finishing a four-pack was a formidable task.

A time when Big Foot roamed the streets.

A survey of The Spinoff reveals vast differences in memory and opinion as to whether or not Big Foot ever actually existed. Like a boozy Mandela Effect, some staffers insist it’s an impossibility – there simply was never a giant RTD, 1.25L is a ludicrous amount of alcohol, and who would drink a Scrumpy bottle of strong spirits? Others remember it well:

“Big Foot was the perfect, gargantuan tipple for 18 year old me,” says one. “I couldn’t drink proper drinks yet, so a 1.25L bottle of sugary ice cold raspberry fizz was perfect to wash down a stolen half-eaten Sal’s and a bag of gummy worms or whatever the hell else I called ‘salad’ in my last year of high school.

“Big Foot was cheap, it was sweet and it looked exactly like a Home Brand 1.25L soft drink, so I had no qualms about drinking it in public. At the Mt Albert train station, on the steps of Britomart, I couldn’t be stopped. I can’t remember anything else.”

I put out the call to social media: did this monstrosity really exist? Does anyone remember? Several drinkers answered with enthusiasm.

“You didn’t make memories on Big Foot,” said an old school acquaintance. “You’d just smash a couple before town and drop a pinger [ecstasy pill] to make sure you didn’t get too shitfaced.”

“I remember them!” said another. “We spilt the bright blue one all over a friends carpet, and blamed a girl that coma’d who we didn’t like. The whole carpet had to be replaced.”

Strong evidence, but still so many doubters. And then I found someone who knew for sure. Someone partly responsible for birthing the Big Foot. Someone who could explain just wtf Independent Liqour was thinking. Someone who could only speak anonymously, hidden behind the journalistic oath to protect sources. It’s some real Roswell shit.

“It was during the bourbon and cola wars,” the source said. “Bourbon and cola RTDs were on fire, they were super popular: Lion, DB and Jim Beam were all in the mix. It was aggressive and high stakes and there were lots of different formats that were working; cans were working, bottles were working, multi-packs and four-packs were working, so it was an opportunity to try a new format. We didn’t think that it could work as a premium offering, so it was a mainstream, at best, offering of bourbon and cola.”

While Big Foot started as a bourbon and cola product, before long it had branched out into vodka mixes. There is scant information on the internet these days, but anecdotally I have confirmed the existence of two more flavours: red and blue. It’s safe to assume red translated to raspberry, but blue remains a mystery substance. A 2011 story in The Listener points to a lolly-pink Big Foot. My source indicated there may have been others.

“Maybe an orange one?” they said.

Blurry, just like the real Big Foot.

At $15 for two, for a total of 20 standard drinks, Big Foot was the logical choice for the poor and thirsty. That amount of shitty grog is no laughing matter however, and the anecdotes of my youth were playing out at house parties and in emergency departments across the country.

A moral panic erupted. The headlines warned of an epidemic: “Sweet new drinks can kill kids, says expert”, “Flogging kid-friendly booze a source of shame”, “Young women drinking to dangerous levels”.

Stories ran in the Herald, the Dominion Post, the New Zealand Police Journal, even bloody old Kiwiblog where David Farrar described them as ‘a bit anti-social’. A column in the Dom Post argued that with their bright colours, sugar content and “pocket-money pricing”, the drinks couldn’t be more kid-friendly “unless it came with a dozen free Pokemon cards,” something our source at Independent Liquor disputes.

“I never really bought into that too much,” they said. “Lion Red is bright red, Tui is bright orange, Export is bright yellow. Most people consume bourbon or whiskey or rum with coke or ginger beer, and vodka and gin go with tonics and lemonades and so on. People like sweet drinks and it’s not exclusively a teen thing.”

And anyway, the argument goes, if it wasn’t Big Foot it’d be a cask of wine or a bottle of rum.

“Independent Liquor was just an easy target,” they said. “Lion and DB and the other breweries spent a lot of money on government relations and media advertising, so the media has a very strong incentive not to target them, not to bite the hand that feeds them. And within government there’s always been good relations with the big breweries. Independent Liquor had no relationship with the government or the media so we were a nice easy target.”

That the heat on Big Foot was a joint government-media media conspiracy is debatable, research into teen drinking habits being a thing and all, but Big Foot’s days were numbered regardless. In 2012 then-justice minister Judith Collins dumped a plan to outright ban the sale of RTDs with more than 6% ABV when the industry offered to self-regulate, limiting RTDs to two standard drinks per vessel. Unlike cider, which remained available for a similar price point and serving size, Big Foot as an RTD was no longer feasible. Like Sasquatch in the days of ubiquitous smart phones, sightings drastically reduced. No more do Big Foots roam the wild.

“I started drinking before RTDs and had some sloppy nights, but with us it was on full strength spirits, and that’s fucking disastrous,” said my Big Foot source. “[RTDs were] a nice, easy lightning rod of controversy. Like everything else wrong with the youth of today, it was just another symbol of the apocalypse.”

Keep going!