One of the unique aspects of life in Sweden is the monopoly system for the sale of wine and spirits. Systembolaget is a government owned chain of liquor stores that sells wine, spirits and beer. No other stores in Sweden are allowed to sell alcoholic beverages containing more the 3.5 % alcohol.
We have to go back to the end of the 1800’s to understand why the state decided to first introduce ration books, followed a few decades later by Systembolaget. Heavy drinking was widespread then and related productivity losses caused the economy to suffer. The state therefore decided to regulate and control the consumption of alcohol by introducing a monopoly and higher taxes.
To come from France and experience this phenomenon was baffling, to say the least. Back in the 90’s when I first arrived in Sweden, you had to take a queue number and stand in line at Systembolaget. Eventually you got called to a counter where you could hand over your order, consisting of a piece of paper with the article numbers of the drinks you wanted. To order a Château Margaux was like speaking Greek.
Friday was the day to buy. Any earlier in the week would give the impression of mid-week drinking – Not at all politically correct in a country where you should look after yourself and not stand out in any way. I also remember how the success of a party was gauged by how much alcohol was provided and how much one had drunk.
To automatically open 2 bottles of wine and place them on the table because there were 4 of us was completely normal. You shared the wine until the bottles were empty.
Driving all the way to Germany and back over the weekend just to buy alcohol was quite common. The standard route of Stockholm – Helsingör – Rödby – Puttgarten – Rödby – Helsingör – Stockholm, 2000 km and nearly 24 hours driving, seems quite incredible but it was worth it, as taxes on alcohol are so high.
Systembolaget modernised and introduced self-service where you could cruise the aisles and browse at leisure. Alcohol was no longer safeguarded behind locked cabinets. The staff underwent training and customers are now served by knowledgeable personnel. Opening hours were also extended and many stores now also open on Saturdays.
Over the past 15 years, Swedes have become more continental in their drinking habits. Even though alcohol can still be a sensitive subject, it’s possible to open wine and have a few glasses mid-week nowadays without eyebrows being raised. When/if you buy alcohol on a Monday, you no longer feel the need to laugh nervously at the checkout and justify your purchase.
Finally, I really have to pay tribute to Systembolaget; part of what makes it unique is that they purchase on a world-wide basis – It’s a privilege for all of us who live in Sweden to have access to such a great and wide selection.
A little about me
I moved to Sweden in 1992 with my then-fiancé. The plan was to be in Sweden for two years but life took a different turn and we ended up staying. I really like living in Sweden and have made a lot of great friends. I live in West Stockholm and have two children. Running, swimming, cycling, golf, skiing, cooking and spending time with family and friends is how I like to spend my free time.
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