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Sweden and Alcohol
Laurie Thompson
This article appeared in the 2003 supplement.
I lived in the northern Swedish province of  Västerbotten in the early 1960s. It is almost as big as Wales, and slightly larger than Washington state. It housed three so-called “system shops” selling alcoholic beverages – one in each of Umeå,  Skellefteå and Lycksele.  They provided carrier bags in which to place the bottles one bought, but most Swedish citizens took with them a briefcase in which to conceal both the bottles and the carrier bag. On emerging, one was approached by uniformed members of the Salvation Army or one (if not several) of the many temperance movements rattling collection tins in the hope that the sin of buying alcoholic liquor could be at least partially expiated by contributing a considerable sum to their cause.

Alcohol was sinful, and one wasn’t allowed to forget it.

Things have changed since then, of course, but there are still areas of Sweden where the consumption of alcohol is not something undertaken by upright, clean-living and God-fearing citizens – which explains why, at the hilarious wedding feast in Mikael Niemi’s novel Populärmusik från Vittula, the hard stuff is purveyed by “the least Christian of the serving ladies”.

Like all countries in the far north of Europe (not to mention Asia and North America), Sweden has always had a problem with alcohol abuse, and more specifically an excessive consumption of schnapps, brännvin. The government started intervening as early as the seven-teenth century, although in those days there was no policy based on curbing excessive drinking. Methods of distilling alcohol from grain had recently been introduced into Sweden, and the authorities were concerned that grain intended for making flour and hence items of the staple diet were being diverted to the manufacture of brännvin.

At the end of the eighteenth century the art of distilling brännvin from potatoes reached Sweden: the amount produced increased spectacularly, as did consumption, which reached a peak by the middle of the nineteenth century.  By then the intake of brännvin was 22 litres per citizen per year: exclude children and those who were not partial to its charms, and the figure becomes closer to a litre per week. Take modest and moderate drinkers into account, and it becomes clear that a large percentage of adult Swedes were consuming two to three litres of strong spirits per week. It is not difficult to imagine the effect on working efficiency and family life.

Temperance organizations were founded in the 1830s, and in 1855 the Swedish government passed laws authorizing steep increases in taxation on alcohol: the policy that nowadays raises the eyebrows of many a foreign visitor to Sweden on discovering the price of alcoholic drinks, especially spirits, was launched. So-called system shops were established by local authorities all over Sweden, and were the only retail outlets for alcoholic beverages by the bottle – licensed restaurants were allowed to serve alcohol, but only together with a meal.

As the temperance organizations grew in size and influence in the second half of the nineteenth century, demands for total prohibition grew and by 1910,  56% of Swedish adults were in favour.  What actually happened was a rationing scheme devised by a medical practitioner, Dr Ivan Bratt, known as the Bratt system: adults over the age of 25 could apply for ration books that were stamped in the various system shops every time strong spirits were bought.  Individuals convicted of drunkenness were not issued with ration books (or had them confiscated), and there were further restrictions on the amounts that women could buy.  The ration allowed varied from time to time,  but it was three litres per person per month when the Bratt system was abolished in 1955. In the run-up to the end of rationing, the 41 regional system shops organizations were incorporated into the new state monopoly chain of retail stores, Systembolaget, the only ones allowed in Sweden to sell bottles, cans and similar containers of alcoholic beverages over the counter, set up in 1954.

Attitudes to the drinking of alcohol in Sweden are more relaxed now as we enter the twenty-first century. Most restaurants are licensed,  and the number of British-style “pubs” has mushroomed. But Systembolaget shops are still the only places allowed to sell wine, spirits  and beer with an alcohol content of more than about 3% on a retail basis (although in small communities without a system shop, a local store can be licensed to order items from the nearest Systembolaget outlet on behalf of their customers).

While the foregoing might suggest that Swedes have only limited access to the alcoholic delights the world has to offer, it should be made clear that the range of beers, wines and spirits from every conceivable producing country in the world available to Swedes through their system shops is second to none. Some excellent beers are brewed in Sweden, but the shelves in Systemet also carry a much wider range of beers from other countries than is usual in Britain or the USA.  The climate of Sweden prevents wine being made there, but the range of choice of high quality wines from all wine-producing countries is stunning.  The range of spirits is also impressive, and as Sweden has long traditions associated with two kinds of strong drink in particular, brännvin and punsch,  it is appropriate to add a few words about them.

Brännvin – Some Facts

  • One might be forgiven for believing that the national drink of Sweden is brännvin (schnapps), even though Swedes maintain it is in fact coffee.
  • The word brännvin means literally “burnt (i.e. distilled) wine”.  When first introduced into Sweden, the drink was distilled from wine, but later the base became grain, and later still potatoes. Nowadays various agricultural products are used.
  • Until the late 19th century, the quality of distilling was not always high, and there was often an unpleasant taste from some of the materials used. To mask this, it became common practice to add various herbs and spices.
  • In the 1870s and 80s a “schnapps war” raged in Sweden, eventually won by the legendary L.O. Smith.  He became the main producer of brännvin and also introduced new, efficient methods of purifying the schnapps produced in his distillery on Reimersholm (an island in Stockholm).
  • For much of the twentieth century the standard form of Swedish schnapps was known as renat,  i.e. “purified” brännvin.
  • Spiced schnapps, especially if the main spice is cumin, is often called akvavit in Swedish. This word comes from the Latin aqua vitae (“water of life”).
  • Akvavit is frequently named after the part of Sweden where it is – or was originally – made,  e.g. Skåne, Gammal Norrlands, Ödåkra; each brand has a characteristic blend of spices.
  • The latest Systemet catalogue of brännvin listing brands widely available contains 12 different unspiced and no less than 43 spiced schnapps made in Sweden.
  • The most widely sold brands of akvavit are Skåne and O. P. Andersson. Both taste of cumin with a touch of aniseed, but “OP” (pronounced “oo pay” and coming from Gothenburg) also has a trace of fennel.
  • The alcohol content of Swedish schnapps ranges from 32% to 43%.

Punsch

The Swedish vodka Absolut has become a world-wide success, and Swedish akvavit has also achieved recognition abroad,  albeit on a smaller scale.  But one Swedish alcoholic drink has remained firmly fixed at home – not even the rest of Scandinavia has fallen for punsch.

Punsch came to Sweden in the 1730s, when ships commissioned by the Swedish East India Company returned to Gothenburg carrying,  among other things,  a cargo of arrack – a strong-tasting spirit distilled from rice, palm juice and sugar cane molasses.  At the time Sweden was trying to get used to an unaccustomed role as a world power,  and it was party time in Gothenburg – celebrated with the aid of copious quantities of arrack mixed with various additives to form what eventually became punsch. The origins of the name “punsch” are unclear,  but it has been suggested that it comes from the Hindi word for “five”,  panc,  on the grounds that punsch is traditionally made from five ingredients:  arrack,  water,  sugar,  lemon juice and a spice, often tea. Pale yellow in colour, punsch is very sweet and nowadays contains 26% alcohol.

Drinking punsch has always been associated with university students, especially at the two oldest universities: Uppsala and Lund;  but a long tradition makes it the accompaniment to pea soup on the Thursday menu. Fashions have changed down the years, of course, but it is usual to drink punsch cold when it is partaken on its own, but to warm it when drunk with Thursday’s pea soup.

The glory days for punsch were at the beginning of the 20th century:  in 1903 no less than four million litres were drunk in Sweden. The equivalent figure for 2002 was 240,000 litres.

Information used in this account of punsch was taken from the article by Bengt-Göran Kronstam, “Blott Sverige punschen har”, published in Bolaget,  April 2003,  pp. 30-31.


On the art of making schnapps:

...for no art comprises such a broad range of ingredients, everything produced by the earth in the way of flowers, fruits, seeds, spices and plants can play a part in the service of this art,  an art which involves bringing together the perfumed and health-bringing and spiritually rich materials such as spices and spice-like substances in such a way that they become one with the spirits and thereafter emerge miraculously from the pots as drops, drops in which the fluid and essential constituents are collected and concentrated like the Holy Spirit in the word of God, and visions in the pupil of an eye.


From Torgny Lindgren, Brännvinsfursten (“The Schnapps King”, Norstedts, 1979).