In Australia there have been calls for volumetric alcohol taxation, or some variant of this, to eliminate the complexities and inequalities of the existing system. While the arguments have been made on economic rationality and evidence-based public health grounds, this article examines the historical drivers of alcoholic beverage excise tax changes in order to facilitate a more informed debate about how to achieve alcohol taxation reform. Excise taxation on spirits and beer (wine has almost never been taxed through excise taxes in Australia) was examined in greater detail using primary data sourced from national excise taxation schedules from 1902 to 2012. Interpretation of this data was based on primary sources such as Hansard speeches and Government reports, and secondary sources provided by historians. Australia had a long history of not taxing spirits more heavily than beer except in the early part of the twentieth century; this changed after 1988. Setting alcohol excise taxes in Australia has been a balancing exercise between industry protection, revenue raising and political expediency, as well as public health. The historical instances examined in this article support the conclusion that while public health has been a driving force for some excise taxation changes, it has not been the only driver. These findings should inform policy making on excise taxation on alcoholic beverages in Australia.