Swedes and alcohol – a hangover from the past

The state has forever told Swedes that alcohol is their worst enemy, but, as the bible says, you should love your enemy. So the Swedes, secular as they may be, have religiously put this into practice. It’s a product they hate to love.

Sweden’s restrictive alcohol policies can be traced back to the early 20th century, when Sweden represented the poorhouse of Europe and the population had been drawing comfort from cheap hard liquor for centuries. It had led to a permanent social hangover and something had to be done.

Introduction of Systembolaget

So, since 1905, the government has had control over the sales of liquor. The Systembolaget has been the national state-owned retail alcohol monopoly ever since.

Rationing alcohol

The ration book was introduced in 1917 which entitled male holders to an average of 1.82 litres of the hard stuff per month. Unmarried women and elderly spinsters were entitled to a wee drop, as their ration was considerably smaller. At the time there must have been a perfectly logical reason why the two groups - married ladies and the jobless - had to do without a ration book altogether. Political correctness forbids me from drawing any possible conclusions.

The referendum on a total ban

Teetotalers up and down the country got themselves organised into what we today might call powerful lobby groups. And before you could put the kettle on, they had pushed for a national referendum on the total ban on the sale of strong alcohol beverages - folkomröstningen om rusdrycksförbud (try saying that after a few glasses).

Poster for Yes campaign

The referendum divided the country. Most women and the majority of northern Sweden voted for a complete ban on the sale of alcohol.

Poster for No campaign

In contrast, most men and the majority of southern Sweden voted against a complete ban.

It was a close thing – 50.8% voted against a ‘prohibition’. However, everybody basically agreed that the national state-owned retail alcohol monopoly – Systembolaget – should remain very much in charge of all things stronger than water.

The early days of Systembolaget

Man entering a Systembolaget in 1963
Man entering a systembolaget in 1963 (Credit

For decades, though, these state liquor stores were few and far between and had the look of hospital pharmacies. They closed shortly after they opened, choice was limited and a bottle of the hard stuff cost an arm and leg. In the end, Swedes did very much have an alcohol problem - it was so expensive that no-one could afford it. It was enough to make you want to live on herring and water alone.

If you really had to buy the horrid stuff, you were made to stand in a long embarrassing line, doing your best to ignore your neighbour or anyone else you might recognise. Oh, the shame of being seen at that sinful store! Bottles of the dangerous liquids were displayed safely behind locked glass cases out of reach. And when God had given out ‘service-skills’, staff at the Systembolaget had clearly not been first in that line. The whole painful experience was designed to deter you from ever setting foot in there again.

A metamorphosis

Inside a Systembolaget

Today, however, things have thankfully changed. Over the past ten years the Systembolaget has gone through a metamorphosis, or, in modern parlance, it’s had a complete makeover. It is now a pure delight to go in to the store and peruse shelf after shelf of wine, spirits and beer in brightly lit premises, reminiscent of any flashy tax-free boutique in the world. And it’s self-service! They now actually trust their customers to put a bottle or two into their basket without opening it before they get to the check-out desk.

And now you can find it

The Systembolaget, like anything to be taken seriously nowadays, has recently launched its very own ‘app’. Press on the icon and the nearest branch will blink at you from a local map on your iPhone screen. So, if you’re in the vicinity why not pop in and buy some of the stuff that you really know you shouldn’t. And as it is only Tuesday afternoon you’re probably well on the way to alcohol abuse anyway.

Despite attacks from outer space or Brussels (for many Swedes it amounts to the same thing) the Systembolaget is still managing to clench on to the remains of its monopoly. Every so often the Systembolaget gets slightly shaken and much stirred by the EU and its trade laws. Sweden’s entry into the EU in 1995 had wide-reaching consequences: under the conditions of free trade, restrictions on imports, exports, sales and production of alcohol had to be lifted.

Never on a Sunday

Now, before you get the wrong picture, this does not mean you will find a bottle of wine in your local Shell garage. And you will defintitely not find any discounts in the Systembolaget either, so don’t expect any tempting BOGOF offers (buy-one-get-one-free). And most stores still close by 3pm on a Saturday and keep firmly shut behind bars on Sunday – so no last minute Blason de Bourgogne Crémant de Bourgogne Rosé Brut Pinot to accompany your impromptu picnic on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

If you are forward-planner enough to know when in the future you wish to drink, and you manage to reach Systembolaget during opening hours, you will be faced with a stunning array of wines, beers and spirits from all around the world. You have to be 20 years old or older to buy any kind of adult beverage and if you look so much as a day under 30 they’ll make you show your ID at the cash desk. People who are in fact over 30, when asked for ID, are of course tremendously flattered – resulting in an instant posting on facebook, displaying the happy baby-face.

So, despite the changes, even today, it’s still a bit like Alice in Wonderland. While selling drink to the public is the Systembolaget’s raison d’être, it does everything possible to persuade them to abstain. Innumerable anti-drinking campaigns later, some even threatening impotence and infertility as a result of imbibing the very products they sell, Sven is not too deterred and still likes his tipple or three.

The travel bug

The import quota from other EU countries is unlimited for personal use, even for Sven. The ever-versatile Swedes have found their own version of the UK’s alcohol-run to France in the form of the ferry to Helsinki. It’s a 16-hour journey, via a docking in Åland, some small autonomous Finnish islands having a special tax-free loop-hole treaty with the EU. Due to the lower alcohol taxes many Swedes travel to Estonia, returning by ferry with trollies and wheelbarrows full of cheap Baltic booze. Or, as in the case of southern Swedes, Germany beckons, the birth place of Nietzsche, the Brandenburg gate and Bayern Munich. But that’s all for another day. Their destination right now is a cut price supermarket with rumors of untold amounts of imported booze behind the revolving doors.

The Swedes are not the only ones with the travel bug, mind: they are in good company with their Scandinavian neighbours. The Danes, too, like to cross the German border every now and then to pick up a wagon-load of plonk, while Norwegians, who endure the highest taxes in Europe on their alcohol, stock up in, of all places, Sweden. It’s quite a merry-go-round.

Swedes have recently taken to buying alcohol over the internet but not all of it makes it to Sven’s drinks cabinet. Large quantities of it are confiscated as soon as it reaches customs – with the result that Swedes lose the booze.

It’s about here that I feel compelled to clarify a possible misapprehension. Contrary to what people say, Swedes are not necessarily heavy drinkers. They can, in fact, sometimes go for hours without touching a drop. They are currently 21st in the world alcohol consumption league – so they are officially not great drinkers. Swedes know that alcohol is a slow poison…and they’re in no hurry. It’s their history. It’s in their blood, so to speak.


Ingredients for homemade snapsIngredients for homemade snaps

Like vodka to the Russians or wine to the French, snaps is part of the Swedish cultural tradition. Distilled from grain or potatoes, it is spiced with an endless variety of flavors, always taken from nature - wormwood, St. John’s wort and, would you believe, bog-myrtle to name but a few. Snaps are imbibed mainly at Midsummer and Christmas, the two main ‘alcoholidays’ of the year.

Absolute silence

The Swedish state has always been terrified that its population will turn alcoholic given half the chance, so they export a lot of it before the Swedes can get their hands on it. Their biggest export is Absolut Vodka. It is called so because of the ‘absolute’ silence you get when you ask politicians how come Sweden encourages people of the developing world to drink liquor but not their own.

Then, of course, there’s beer. Beer is proof that God loves Swedes and wants them to be happy. Since prehistory, it was the staple beverage in Sweden, drunk in extreme quantities to balance the salty food—pickled herring and salted pork. Swedes like to pickle. If you pickle it, they’ll eat it.

So, in conclusion, Swedes still like to imbibe. Nowadays, they feel less like guilt-ridden, souls on the brink of alcoholism and more and more life-loving, wine-guzzling continentals. As one Swede remarked recently, ‘I cook with wine. And sometimes I even add it to the food'.



SwedishFood.com is run by a not-for-profit company set up to help English speakers around the world who would like to learn more about Swedish food. If you like the site please help us to promote it and bring Swedish food to a bigger audience by following us on:

 Facebook logoTwitter logoPinterest logo

John Duxbury
Editor and Founder