Swedes and alcohol

Forget about spontaneously buying a bottle of wine when walking along the harbor in the late evening, or celebrating your high school diploma with champagne – in Sweden, there are strict rules when it comes to alcohol.

Beer with 0.5% alcohol

Ridiculous – beer with 0.5%!

Swedes have a problem with alcohol, that is with the absence of alcohol. If you go to a grocery store in Sweden, you will only find a couple of different beers and ciders with an alcohol volume no higher than 3.5%. To buy wine, champagne or hard liquor, you need to go to special shops called «Systembolaget» (System company) that have ridiculous opening hours and incredibly high prices. Basically, you need to be old and rich to get drunk in Sweden.

Alcohol monopoly

SystembolagetThe idea behind the government monopoly on alcohol is «to minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive.» There are strict rules in these stores: you need to be at least 20 years old to buy any alcohol; discounts, such as “buy 1, get 1 free” deals are prohibited; and all products are handled equally, which means that the beers are not cooled, since otherwise all beer would have to be refrigerated which is too expensive.

Swedish alcohol store: Systembolaget

Swedish alcohol store: Systembolaget

These monopolies exist in all Nordic countries, except Denmark, and in Canada. By comparison: in Switzerland you can get (cooled) beer, wine and champagne at any shop at the age of 16, and hard liquor at the age of 18, and each supermarket you want to. And the difference in price is huge as well. For a bottle of Absolut Vodka – which is by the way a SWEDISH brand – you pay 22.40 Swiss francs in Switzerland but in Sweden it’s 1.5 times more: 239 Swedish krona which make it 34 Swiss francs. The biggest difference is found with Gordon’s Gin for which you pay double the price you would in Switzerland (34 Swiss francs!).

Get drunk or go home
Buying beer at Systembolaget

Buying beer at Systembolaget

But do Swiss drink much more than Swedes? According to the WHO report, both countries are similar when it comes to alcohol consumption, with an average of 10.9 liters in Switzerland, and 10.3 liters in Sweden, measured in terms of pure alcohol.

Where there might be a big difference is in the drinking patterns of the countries. While in Switzerland we are used to open a bottle of wine once in a while for a dinner with our loved ones, this culture does not exist in Sweden. A report states that from Monday to Thursday, 2/3 of the Swedish population is completely abstinent from alcohol. But this ratio gets quickly compensated on the weekends. So you could say: either Swedes get drunk, or they don’t drink at all. At least when it comes to students – good wine is so expensive that you won’t use it just to round off a meal.

Duty free
Line at Systembolaget

Long line at Systembolaget on Friday afternoons

It is therefore no surprise that a certain type of alcohol tourism have emerged. People living in Western Sweden will take the train to Copenhagen which is only a couple of kilometers away, and people from the Eastern part of Sweden will take the ferry to Estonia, Latvia or Poland. So when you see students coming back from their trip to Riga or Tallinn, they will most likely be carrying a crate of beer or several bottles of liquor with them.

And some Swedes just brew their own schnaps, called «hembränt».  Or as Balzac said: «The bottle does not matter as long as you get drunk.» – Skål!

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