Many of you coming to Sweden may experience initial shock when you step by first store and can’t find any alcoholic beverages with more than 3,5% of alcohol. Alcohol in Sweden is treated in special way, so obviously it’s being sold in special places. Those places are called Systembolaget.
Alcohol in Sweden – complicated relationship
Over the years, there have been multiple attempts to regulate alcohol consumption. However in 1766, King Adolf Frederick decided to abolish all restrictions. This leaded not only to increased consumption of alcohol, but also to increased production of alcohol in Sweden. With the beginning of 19th century, it’s said there had been 175.000 home distilleries, men abused alcohol and women were saved only because drinking was considered inappropriate at that time.
Situation started to change and in 1837 Svenska Sällskapet för Nykterhet och Folkuppfostran (The Swedish Society for Temperance and Public Education) was founded, it quickly got King’s approval and started campaign to promote temperance and criticize private gain from selling alcohol. In 1850 the state begun to regulate alcohol consumption and in 1860 in Göteborg a bar was opened where staff excluded from entrance antisocial and intoxicated people. At the same year age restriction was introduced and 10 years later it’s been decided that all profit from selling alcohol should go to the state.
First World War brought rationing system – state bars and stores registered all alcohol purchases. People were allowed to buy only 2l of liquor every three months and all beers with over 3,5% alcohol were banned. The rationing system continued after the war and more restrictions came – the amount of alcohol that people were allowed to buy was evaluated individually based on gender, social status and wealth. In 1922 prohibition referendum was held and its result advised government not to introduce a total prohibition.
In 1955 alcohol rationing was abolished and this is the moment when Systembolaget was founded.
Where to buy alcohol in Sweden?
Systembolaget is government-owned chain of stores – the only retail stores that are allowed to sell alcohol in Sweden which contains over 3,5% alcohol by volume. At first, products were sold only by shop attendants and it was necessary to use a desk service. Face-to-face interactions were supposed to disencourage from buying larger amounts of alcohol. As you can imagine, this wasn’t really helpful.
In 1991 big transformation started and possibility of self-service was introduced in first Systembolaget. Slow transformation took many years – last store dropped face-to-face sales in 2014 (to be more specific, it happened in branch in Högdalen, southern Stockholm). However, until now you can see some past relicts and, especially in smaller branches, you still need to ask staff for stronger alcohols (mostly whiskeys and vodkas).
Most interesting moments in Systembolaget’s history
Systembolaget is a quite unique phenomenon. It had some interesting moments in its history. I’ve chosen the most appealing one (it’s very subjective list, I admit) but if you want to know more, I’m encouraging you to have a look at this website (unfortunately in Swedish, but feel free to use Google Translate)
- In 1957 “Operation vin” (“Operation wine“) campaign started. It supposed to encourage people to drink more wine instead of spirit drinks. By 1958, sales of spirit decreased by 13mln liters and sales of wine increased by 6,5mln liters so campaign can be considered a success.
- In 1963 there was a strike in Vin- & Spritcentralen which was Systembolaget’s main supplier. People started panicking and when stores were run out of spirits, cognac and champane started to sell out. Some stores were forced to close until the end of strike on May, 13th.
- In 1964, the state introduced special age identification system – cash registers blinked red at random clients who were obliged to present a valid ID. To make things easier, Systembolaget started to issue their own ID-cards, using photo booths located in stores to take a pictures of the customers.
- In 1968 a new visual identity of Systembolaget stores was introduced, along with a new logo that stays with us until now with some changes (last one took place in 2003).
- In 1971 age restriction for selling alcoholic beverages in Systembolaget was lowered from 21 to 20.
- Years 1975-1984 are time of fight about closing stores on Saturdays. Unions are for, government is for but Systembolaget is clearly against. Eventually, it’s been decided that stores will be closed on Saturdays during summer months and in sign of protest, current CEO of Systembolaget resigned from the office.
- Because “alcohol-free” drinks were alcohol-free only in law definition (in reality they could contain even 2,25% alcohol by volume), in 1989 they changed name to “soft drinks”.
- In 1993, European Commission accepted Systembolaget’s monopoly but only on condition that company will operate in a non-discriminatory manner, however Sweden was obliged to cancel Vin- & Spritcentralen’s monopoly on manufacturing, wholesale, import and export and Systembolaget’s monopoly on sales to restaurants (which eventually happened in 1995).
- In 1996 new products – wine in boxes and mixed alcoholic beverages (alkoläsk) – appeard on Systembolaget’s shelves despite of their opposition.
- In 1997 first official Systembolaget’s website was launched with first thoughts about online sales in 1998. Eventually, first attempts to sell online alcohol in Sweden were made in 2000 in Stockholms area.
- In 1999, the government approved alcohol bill which continued strengthening position of Systembolaget, trying to introduce stores opened on Saturdays, extend opening hours in the evenings and launch possibility of accepting card payments in stores.
- In summer 2000, first payments with credit and debit cards were accepted.
As you can see, it’s been a long time before Systembolaget became what we know now.
Alcohol in Sweden – prices
Variety of alcohols available in Systembolaget is huge although I’ve got an impression the biggest choice you have among wines from all over the world. Wines are sold in bottles (usually 750ml) or boxes (usually 3l). Sample prices are listed below:
- White German wines, 750ml – from 50 SEK
- Red German wines, 750ml – from 80 SEK
- White Spanish wines, 750ml – from 69 SEK
- Red Spanish wines, 750ml – from 61 SEK
- White French wines, 750ml – from 71 SEK
- Red French wines, 750ml – from 81 SEK
- French wines in box, 3l – approx. 175-314 SEK
- Spanish wines in box, 3l – approx. 180-250 SEK
- German wines in box, 3l – approx. 170-270 SEK
Second biggest category are beers and ciders. There are a lot of Swedish beers in the assortment 3110 out of 4273 products on Systembolaget’s website) but you’ll find also a great choice of imported brands like Carlsberg, Staropramen (Czech Republic) or Birra Moretti (Italy). Sample prices:
- Birra Moretti (Italy), 330ml – 17,10 SEK
- Erdinger Weissbier Hefe (Germany), 500ml – 24,90 SEK
- Żywiec (Poland), 500ml – 19,30 SEK
- Sofiero (Sweden), 500ml – 12,30 SEK
- Staropramen (Czech Republic), 500ml – 18,20 SEK
- Leffe Blonde (Belgium), 330ml – 22,20 SEK
- Somersby Sparkling Secco (Sweden), 330ml – 18,10 SEK
- Somersby Strawberry&Lime Cider (Sweden), 330ml – 14,10 SEK
If it comes to stronger alcohol in Sweden, you have also a lot to choose from, however I think “Operation wine” campaign was successful because you can clearly see this category isn’t so popular. Sample prices:
- Tullamore Dew Whiskey(Ireland), 700ml – 301 SEK
- Johnnie Walker Red Label (The Great Britain), 700ml – 270 SEK
- Dworek Vodka (Poland), 700ml – 342 SEK
- Absolut Vodka (Sweden), 700ml – 246 SEK
Prices above should be treated as examples. Among all the products you’ll find beverages in all different prices, including some connoisseur’s repertoire that could be much more expensive than those I’ve posted here.
Sweden – alcohol selling times
Systembolaget’s opening hours are very strict. Be sure you wouldn’t be able to buy alcohol in Sweden on Sundays and all state holidays (red days – röda dagar). Most stores are open Monday-Friday 10am-6pm and on Saturdays 10am-1pm. Stores located in shopping centers may be open a bit longer, until 8pm during the week and 3pm on Saturdays. However, stores in smaller cities could close earlier, especially on Saturdays.
Current opening hours can be found on Systembolaget’s official website.
Alcohol laws in Sweden
Due to many restrictions covered by Swedish law, many restrictions apply when it comes to sales of alcohol in Sweden. Among others:
- Age restriction to buy alcohol in Systembolaget is 20, however you may buy alcohol in bars and restaurants when you’re above 18.
- If you look younger than 25, you need to present a valid ID that would confirm your age. Practically, no matter how old or young you may look, most of Systembolaget’s employees would ask for your ID.
- Systembolaget may refuse to sell alcohol to the customer if there’s a suspicion it’s being bought for someone under age of 18. It is also strictly prohibited to sell alcohol for people already drunk.
- All products should be equally exposed, which often means there are no refrigerated drinks because that would mean that then all the drinks would have to be chilled.
- There are no discounts and deals such as “Buy 1 get 1 free”. Systembolaget doesn’t advertise their products, however producers may run campaigns promoting their products if they contain less than 15% alcohol volume and ads are not run in TV or radio.
- All products must be sold individually (each bottle, wine-box, can). This doesn’t apply to some “gift packs” that are often offered in case of traditional Swedish shots.
Controversy around Swedish alcohol policy
During all those years, there have been many debates about Swedish alcohol policy and possible changes. Many times European Commission was involved (one of examples was in 1993 when it was decided that alcohol related law is consistent with EU law).
In 2022, Graham Butler’s report was published and discussed during SIEPS (Swedish Institute for European Policy Studies) seminar. The report describes how both Court of Justice of the European Union’s case law and Sweden’s alcohol policy changed over the years and summarises that Systembolaget’s monopoly and its compatibility with EU law in current state may be questionable.
While legal foundations of Systembolaget are being questioned, the People of Sweden speak with one voice – Systembolaget is the most trusted company in Sweden (71% say they have very high or high trust in the annual “Trust Barometer” /result in 2022/). In another survey, this time Opinion Index run by Kantar Sifo on behalf of Systembolaget, 75,2% support Systembolaget and their monopoly (2021).
Opinion index is a survey when every month a group of 750 people in age of 15 and above answer a question “Do you think that Systembolaget and the monopoly on the sale of stronger beer, wine and spirits should be kept or do you want strong beer, wine and spirits to be sold in the other stores?”. Survey isn’t conducted in July, 1500 people is asked in August instead (due to summer leave).
Although alcohol advertisements are strictly prohibited, Systembolaget runs its own campaigns. Their main goal is to encourage to drink moderately. They often focus on negative side effects of drinking and protection of young people from access to alcohol.
In 2018 there was a campaign launched that encouraged people younger than 25 to show their ID before staff member ask them to. In exchange, they got a a free pack of chewing gum.
Alcohol in pubs and restaurants
Due to prohibition and high taxes on alcohol in Sweden, prices are noticeably higher than in Systembolaget. One beer can cost around 89-130 SEK, glass of wine approx. 120 SEK, drinks and coctails in average bar cost 130-180 SEK.
If you are younger than 20 years old, you can’t buy alcoholic beverages with more than 3,5% alcohol volume. Some places tighten the age limit to 21 or 25 so if you plan going out for a drink or two, make sure places you want to visit will sell them to you.
These are not the only restrictions. Restaurants are allowed to serve alcohol only for immediate consumption, which means bottle must be opened and consumed on location. Selling hours are between 11 a.m. and 1 a.m. Closure time can be later (until 5 a.m.) if municipality agrees. After 11 p.m. alcohol can be served only if restaurant or bar serves warm food.
Consumption of alcohol in Sweden
Now, when you know the history of Systembolaget, I should probably answer the most important question. Does alcohol policy in Sweden brings the results in decreasing consumption of alcoholic beverages in Sweden? Let’s check the statistics.
This chart presents prevalence of heavy episodic drinking at least once a month in 2019 in all EU countries, comparing to EU average (data from Finland was not available). As you can see, Sweden ranks quite high, considering it’s the only country with prohibition laws. In fact, it’s even higher than Poland which is stereotypically considered as a country where people drink a lot.
Heavy episodic drinking is defined as ingesting more than 60g of pure ethanol during one drinking session.
However, if you ask about average alcohol consumption, situation is slightly different. Sweden is in the group of countries with the lowest annual consumption of pure alcohol per person with the result of 2 liters along with Norway (another country with prohibition).
What conclusions come out of those two research? I’d say Swedes drink higher amounts at once during certain occasions (drinking sessions are planned), while in other countries with higher clear alcohol consumption, it’s being drunk on regular, everyday basis.
Alcohol in Sweden is controversial topic among many immigrants, especially from countries where alcohol consumption is high and with strong drinking culture. At the same time, situation doesn’t seem to bother Swedish citizens so we can only accept it. Personally, as a person who drink only from time to time and chooses rather beer (mostly craft ones), I don’t care much about availability of alcohol in other stores. What is your opinion?
- Historien om Systembolaget [access: 20/01/2023]
- Butler Graham. Alcoholic Goods and Sweden. The EU Law of Private Imports, Retail Sale, and State Monopolies. [access: 20/01/2023]
- Så säger folket om Systembolaget [access: 20/01/2023]
- “One in twelve adults in the EU consumes alcohol every day” from Eurostat [access: 21/01/2023]
- “Alcohol consumption in Europe” from Landgeist.com [access: 21/01/2023]
- Systembolaget’s official website [access: 22/01/2023]