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'The most drunken country in Europe': Read this and you might like Systembolaget a whole lot better

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'The most drunken country in Europe': Read this and you might like Systembolaget a whole lot better
File photo of a branch of Systembolaget. Photo: Isabell Höjman/TT
14:45 CEST+02:00
Systembolaget may get on your nerves, but after learning about Sweden's fiery relationship with liquor, American historical researcher, writer and author Victoria Martinez has a better understanding of it.

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Sweden's tempestuous relationship with liquor goes back more than 500 years and can make the country's state-run alcohol monopoly, Systembolaget, seem like a nirvana.

In fact, it wasn't too long ago that anyone wanting to purchase strong alcohol, such as liquor/spirits, in Sweden would have had to deal not only with an alcohol monopoly, but also with strict rationing. Under the so-called Bratt System, which operated from 1917 until Systembolaget was introduced in 1955, just getting a liquor ration book (motbok) was complicated.

"The granting of a rationing book required a review of the person and his or her situation… as rations were different depending on age, gender, family situation (as only one rationing book was issued per family), living habits, existence of bad credit or financial difficulty, nonpayment of taxes, poverty, and complaints about prior drunkenness," explained Dr. Harold D. Holder in his 2000 book, Sweden and the European Union: Changes in National Alcohol Policy and Their Consequences.

If approved, the allowance was between a half-litre and up to four litres of spirits per month until 1941, when the maximum was decreased to three litres. The average ration granted was two litres per month, which was what was typically granted to unmarried men. Women were granted the smallest rations. An unmarried woman of 30 or older might be allowed a maximum of one or two litres per quarter.

Since only one ration book was allowed per family, women lost their independent rations upon marriage and were instead expected to make do with some part of their husbands' portions. Presumably so they could share with their wives and entertain guests, married men – especially those with families and substantial incomes – were granted the most generous rations.

As unappealing as liquor rationing may sound, it was thanks in part to the Bratt System that Sweden was the only Nordic country of the 20th century not to introduce prohibition. It also played a key role in freeing Sweden from the monstrous reputation it had developed by the early 19th century.

"The most drunken country in Europe"

"Today Sweden is associated with advanced, postindustrial capitalism, pragmatism, and progressivism, yet until little over a century ago the stereotypical image of Sweden was of a small, cold, backward country of drunken peasants mired in a swamp of distilled spirits, or brännvin," wrote Mark Lawrence Schradin his 2010 book, The Political Power of Bad Ideas.

Classified as “Swedish vodka” since the 1950s, brännvin – literally, "burn wine" – came to Sweden in 1467 not as a drink, but as a component of gunpowder production. Known throughout Europe as aqua vitae, a distilled wine that had been used for medicinal purposes since at least the middle ages, it didn't take long for Swedes to discover that the real bang occurred when it was consumed.

Because it was made with wine, brännvin (brandy, to the English) started out as a drink for the wealthy. But even with a limited market, it quickly became so popular that human consumption began to infringe upon the supply needed to produce gunpowder. In 1494, the first ban on the production of brännvin was imposed, restricting distillation for anything other than gunpowder production. The ban was lifted just four years later, and a tax was imposed instead, but the taste for brännvin had evidently taken a firm hold on Swedes.

Soon, cheaper methods of producing brännvin – first using corn in the 16th century, followed by potatoes in the 18th century – made it accessible to an increasing number of Swedes. As demand increased, so did the number of both commercial and private stills. Just as it had once threatened gunpowder production, the popularity of brännvin soon threatened to divert vital food resources to its production.

Sweden's King Gustav III, whose dislike of coffee led him to some pretty unorthodox measures, decided to deal with the issue of brännvin somewhat more conventionally. Despite supposedly being advised that a Swedish king should never meddle with Lutheranism or brännvin, Gustav created Sweden's first state alcohol monopoly in 1775 to increase royal revenue. A system of around 60 crown distilleries and some 3000 official pubs was created to control and profit from the liquor trade.

"The consumption of spirits was encouraged in every way in order to increase the receipts of the Treasury," wrote Oscar Gustaf von Heidenstam in his 1904 book, Swedish Life in Town and Country.

"Public servants knew they might count upon favour by inducing people to drink by every means in their power. Tea and coffee were prohibited to prevent undesirable competition; beer was unknown, wine rare; and the Government produce reigned supreme."

In spite of the fact that liquor was abundant, the system was highly unpopular, especially among farmers who had lost their private distillation rights, but who often continued to distill anyway. Crackdowns on these private stills only created more public discontent. Eventually, the state monopoly was dismantled and full commercial and private distillation rights were restored by the early 19th century.

By then, Sweden had gained a reputation as, in the words of von Heidenstam, "the most drunken country in Europe".

Overcoming a Violent Passion

When he came to Sweden in 1810 to take his place as heir to the throne, Jean Bernadotte – the future King Karl XIV Johan – was so dismayed by the Swedish obsession with brännvin that he reportedly predicted it would be "the ruin of the Swedish people".

When the Bratt System was in use, Sweden's per capita liquor consumption was typically under five litres annually. At its peak in the first half of the 19thcentury, it had been as high as 46 litres. As the late Professor Richard F. Tomasson wrote in 1998, "That translates into the better part of a liter of strong brännvin every week for every man, woman, and child in the country".

Although actual consumption obviously varied, contemporary accounts bear out the alarming consumption of brännvin.

"We have seen children of nine or ten years old swallow down large glasses of this liquid fire, which we could never have emptied without unpleasant effects," recorded French traveler Louis de Boisgelin, who traveled through Sweden in the late 18th century.

"[Swedes] are sober in every particular, excepting their love of brandy [brännvin]," he wrote in his 1810 book, Travels through Denmark and Sweden. In his view, the honesty of Swedes was unparalleled, except when their "violent passion" for brännvin made them otherwise.

Englishman Horace William Wheelwright, in his 1865 book, Ten Years in Sweden, wrote in similar terms of the Swedish peasants he had encountered. On the one hand, he praised them as "industrious and hard-working, honest as times go" and "always civil, friendly, and well-disposed". On the other hand, he wrote, "I never could find the real key to their hearts, except by branvin [sic]".

In his iconic novel, The Emigrants, Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg provided several examples in the introduction of how local authorities in Sweden addressed brännvin consumption, including the following:

"At a parish meeting in 1845 it was further decided that no brännvin should be sold during church services at a distance of less than six hundred yards from God's house. It was also stated that any parishioner who gave brännvin to a child who had not yet received Holy Communion must pay a fine…"

The effectiveness of such decrees was limited, however. It wasn't until the Swedish temperance movement, which was influenced by a similar movement in the United States, gained traction that more effective local controls were instituted and government pressure brought about increased national regulation.

In 1855, the Swedish government began the process of bringing alcohol under state control by banning home distillation. During the same period, the seeds of the modern system were planted, notably in Falun and Gothenburg.

Falun was the first to introduce a private local alcohol monopoly in 1850 which “[took] over the operations of all the saloons and alcohol retailers within the town without consideration of the profits that prompted saloon-keepers to maximize alcohol sales,” explained Mark Lawrence Schrad.

"Other towns, seeing the resulting decrease in negative social consequences, began to adopt the practice, including Sweden's second largest city, by whose name the practice would gain international fame as the ‘Gothenburg system' (Göteborg Systemet)."

Eventually, the Gothenburg System was implemented throughout Sweden, and was later incorporated into the Bratt System. In the early 20th century, before the convergence of the two systems, support for total alcohol prohibition in Sweden was robust. But in 1922, after the Bratt System of rationing was firmly in place, a national referendum on prohibition was defeated. Swedes, it seems, had found their middle ground.

Today, Sweden is far from being the most drunken country in Europe. The World Health Organization consistently ranks Sweden's alcohol consumption favorably compared to other developed countries, including the United States and United Kingdom.

As for Systembolaget, it may be unpopular, but history demonstrates that the alternatives could be much worse.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

Read more from her family and history column on The Local here.

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