• Sweden’s alcohol security system

    Systembolaget with the grille down

    The most secure place in any Swedish city? The prison? No. A bank? No (there is no actual money in Swedish banks anymore – that’s another story). The town hall? No way. This is Sweden. All doors are open. Except, that is, the door of the Systembolaget.

    And it’s not just the door. The Systembolaget doesn’t just shut and lock its door. It puts a metal screen down behind it. And then lots more metal screens behind all the big glass windows. It’s a full lockdown. It is the most secure building in any Swedish town, anywhere.

    Security isn’t a dirty word

    Systembolaget is an important word in Swedish. It’s the name of the state monopoly alcohol supplier. No one but no one in the country can sell you take-out alcohol stronger than a 3.5% lager except Systembolaget. And when Systembolaget closes, it’s closed. Like Fort Knox.

    Swedes are born to it. As a result, they have all perfected a certain style of alcohol purchasing. They plan ahead, in bulk. Being Swedish, this comes fairly naturally. They’re good at planning ahead. It means that when you’re in the checkout line in Systembolaget, you’re surrounded by people with crates of the stuff.

    Even the drunks (yes, state control hasn’t worked) buy their 12% lager in bulk. With my two bottles of Pinot Grigio, I look ridiculous.

    Wine is the forbidden fruit

    And I’m so bad at remembering the strict opening hours that I always miss them. I drink almost exclusively 3.5% lager as a result. It’s a little tedious. Wine has become something of a wistful memory. If only I could plan ahead better, I might taste it again.

    I live in Skåne, the southern breadbasket of Sweden, where the orchards and a few vineyards are fertile and plentiful. Yet even here the state is watching. Visit any of the idyllic Skåne vineyards and you can sample the wine, maybe enjoy a meal with wine, but buy a bottle to take away with you? Oh, no, no, no…

    Only Systembolaget is legally allowed to sell you wine to take out, so having visited the vineyard, you would then need to head back to the city and find a Systembolaget in order, perhaps, to find the fine Swedish vintage you were after.

    They might need to fine-tune that one before Skåne becomes Europe’s answer to the Napa Valley.

    If you ever get hold of any alcohol in Sweden, you might want to wash it down with a Swedish hot dog

  • Does shandy have an age limit?

    Reading Will Self’s novella on Brexit in The New European last week, I read the following:

    “The prime minister’s holed up in Chequers, on the Chiltern fringe. I used to walk out that way, towards Wendover Hill, with my unpatriotic, but deeply beery father, back in the flannel-and-Gannex sixties, when you knew where you stood: in Britain; and what you stood in: leather. We’d stop at the Sundown Inn, and he’d pour half his pint into my lemonade, then we’d stagger on. I’d have been around 10 years old, but it was an innocent era – and when my mother chided my father for giving me watered-down wine at lunch, he’d say, “The French do it”. As if that settled the matter.”

    In its contents, that paragraph was almost a carbon copy of my own childhood, two decades later in the 1980s. That means whatever kind of puritanical tide has engulfed Britain in the meantime, it hadn’t yet happened in the 80s. They, too, must have been an era of innocence. 

    Has it really become unacceptable to give your child a shandy? Or is it still happening quietly behind closed doors up and down the land? I can’t give a definitive answer. My child is 3 years old, which let’s face it is just too young, so I have no primary research to fall back on. 

    “The French do it”

    This is the telling line. It reminds me of my gap year on an Italian farm where the farmer gave me weak red wine in the morning as a thirst quencher while digging potatoes, but where I never saw anyone actually pissed in my entire trip. 

    The French do do it, but like most southern Europeans, they seem to do it steadily and with sobriety. Given the northern tendency towards oblivion, whenever talk turns to allowing a child to drink, it tends to conjure images of a youngster reeling and barfing on a stupid father’s pack of Stella. 

    More interested in food than drink? Here’s an idea for reinventing how we eat