Sweden and Alcohol

Why Swedes treat the hard stuff as liquid gold.

For many of us, the holiday season seems to have an extra emphasis on alcohol. Christmas is a time for glögg (Swedish mulled wine), champagne is popped when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, and a glass of wine by the fire makes a cozy winter night in even cozier.

And it isn’t just the holiday season that seems to center around alcohol in Sweden. Summer is a high time for drinking too, with crayfish and midsummer parties. At these parties one will always find the traditional Scandinavian alcohol snaps (schnapps), a shot of aquavit.

And while we see alcohol everywhere in Sweden, it is still highly regulated.

In the early 20th century, the Swedish government realized they needed to address social norms around drinking. Alcoholism was running rampant and dependence on cheap, hard liquor had been the case for centuries. At one point, it was even used as a common form of payment in place of salaries.

In 1905, the Swedish government took control over the sale of liquor, only allowing it to be purchased at Systembolaget, the national state-owned alcohol monopoly. And to ensure that Swedes were not overdoing it on the hard stuff, Sweden introduced the “ration book” in 1917, which entitled males to an average of 1.82 liters per month. It was much less for unmarried women. 

At the time, some in Sweden wanted to ban alcohol completely. There was a petition for a national referendum disallowing the sale of strong alcohol beverages – folkomröstningen om rusdrycksförbud. Supporting the referendum were women and those from northern Sweden. Against it were men and Southern Swedes. In the end, the referendum was narrowly defeated with 50.8% voting against a the prohibition.

What we have been left with since is Systembolaget, the state-run alcohol shops that are never open when you want them to be. Maybe Swedes treat alcohol as liquid gold because it isn’t so easy, or cheap, to get your hands on.

But many Swedes take to other countries to avoid the high taxes on Swedish alcohol. Finland, Estonia, and Germany are favorites, depending on where in Sweden you live. The difference in price can be as much as 70% with the tax on spirits 15% lower in Germany than in Sweden. My partner Nick has even completed the journey once since we moved here – driving over 3 hours one-way and taking a ferry to the BorderShop in Febmarn, Germany to stock up on the good stuff. It is common for Swedes to take an alcohol run like this annually and spend anywhere between 2-7,000 SEK (~$200-700 USD).

So now that we all know a little more about Sweden’s relationship to alcohol, I think it is time for a drink! But damn, it is Sunday at Systembolaget is closed.

Fun Facts:

  • Glögg, or Swedish mulled wine, is served hot with raisins and peeled almonds in the mug. It is a favorite of mine with lussekatter!
  • Systembolaget is closed on Sundays and closes Saturday by 15:00. Be sure to buy early for holiday weekends!
  • Only those 20-years-old and up can purchase from Systembolaget. But you can have a beer out at a bar from 18.
  • Anything alcohol over 3.5% ABV must be purchased at Systembolaget. Lower than that can be found at a grocery store.

Tess’ Tips:

  • Skål is how Swedes say “cheers!”
  • Interested in joining in for a snapsvisor (drinking song)? Helan Går is a classic.
  • Perhaps you want to partake in the merriment, but aren’t interested in getting full (drunk)? Check out Oddbird, Swedish wines “liberated from alcohol”. Oddbird was started in 2013 by Moa Gürbüzer, a former family therapist and social worker. According to Oddbird, Gürbüzer “worked mainly with alcohol related family issues and saw, first hand, the detrimental effects of alcohol on our society. She was astonished by how recurrent so many of the issues were and realized there need to be a structural change…Her vision was to question and change the alcohol norms of society by creating world class wines but liberating them from alcohol. Today Oddbird is the largest producer of wines liberated from alcohol in Scandinavia.”

Hope you learned some new Swedishness today and I’ll see you in the next post!


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