The good old houseparty is probably most common amongst students in the UK and usually serves as a precursor to the evening’s main event at the latest bar or club. Organising beverages is pretty easy: simply head down to Tesco, or even the local petrol station, and stock up – alcohol is cheaply available and never far away. The relatively few houseparties that I have attended tend to involve a barbecue, Singstar, or Wii – something that you can’t particularly do in a bar because if you could, you’d be in a bar!
However, since I’ve been in Sweden I have come to realise that nights in a bar are going to be far less common and houseparties the norm. And why? Well at an average of £4.50 for a beer in a bar (and you won’t even get a pint for that) and Smirnoff Ice priced at a staggering £6, it’s not difficult to see how a night out can suddenly become somewhat of a financial burden. In addition to the expense, alcohol is not always easily available in Sweden.
You see, the Swedish government has a monopoly on the sale of alcohol. Supermarkets are only allowed to stock beer with a maximum of 3.5% alcohol and you won’t find a bottle of wine in your local Shell garage. In order to buy alcohol outside of a pricey bar in Sweden you must visit a Systembolaget.
Systembolaget is the only store that is licensed to sell alcohol, and as the idea was developed in order to “minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive” fierce restrictions apply (www.systembolaget.se). In order to buy from Systembolaget you must be 20 years or older (despite the legal drinking age being 18) and will often be asked to produce identification. Anybody accompanying you may also be asked for ID and if either of you fail to produce it neither will be served. You will not find any discounts in the Systembolaget either so don’t expect any tempting BOGOF offers.
Not only this, but Systembolaget is subject to strict opening hours. Think of any time that you most wish to buy alcohol – Saturday evening, bank holidays or after a stressful day at work – and these are the times when Systembolaget will not be open. Most stores close by 3 on a Saturday and do not open at all on a Sunday – so no last minute Pinot Grigio to accompany your impromptu picnic on a sunny afternoon.
It’s not all bad news. When you are forward-planning enough to know when in the future you wish to drink, and you manage to reach Systembolaget during opening hours, you will be faced with a vast array of wines, beers and spirits from all around the world. Rumour has it that you can even request your favourite tipple if they don’t stock it and they are obliged to order it for you for next time. I’m not sure that your local Threshers offer that kind of service.
It seems to be working – Sweden is not plagued with the binge-drinking culture that afflicts the UK but whether this is due to the strict regulations on the purchase of alcohol is difficult to say. That’s not to say that underage drinking does not exist, a walk around a major city at 2am on a weekend night will show the same spectacle as many UK cities, with people pouring out of bars in various inebriated states – albeit without such a threat of violence. Frustratingly, the Swedes still manage to look sophisticated, classy and perfectly immaculate at the same time.
Never to be outdone, however, the ever-versatile Swedes have found their own version of the UK’s alcohol-run to France in the form of the ferry to Helsinki. For a 16 hour journey and from the surprisingly cheap rate of £12 (one-way) you can book a bed in a small cabin and enjoy all that the boat has to offer – stunning views, shopping, restaurants and tax-free alcohol (www.tallinksilja.com). And once you get to Helsinki? Why get off when you can turn around with the boat and do it all again? The cheapest 30 hour drinking-binge you’ll find in Sweden! Well, with a little help from Finland.
Drinking in Sweden is not going to be cheap and thankfully I am not a big drinker so that should not be too much of a problem for me. Admittedly, I will yearn for the days when I was able to buy a cocktail in a top hotel such as the Sheraton or Park Hyatt for less than a fiver but prices outside of Vietnam were always going to be a shock! And so, bearing all of this in mind, I made my way to a houseparty in Eskilstuna at the weekend armed with a can of Kopparberg that had been dutifully purchased from Systembolaget at least 8 hours in advance, safe in the knowledge that my bank balance was going to be much healthier for it.