Why Buying Alcohol in Sweden is Not That Simple

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Judi Lembke

Despite the fact that Swedes do love a drink or three, buying alcohol in Sweden is not that simple. Or maybe it is, as long as you understand the rules, of which there aren’t all that many – but the ones that are on the books are set in stone.

The first thing you need to know is that Sweden ‘enjoys’ a state-run liquor monopoly, called Systembolaget; which means that if you want to buy wine, spirits, or anything other than light beer (which is just a smidgen above non-alcohol beer), you have to go to the state-run liquor stores. Here, if you’re over the age of 20 and can show proper ID you are welcome to purchase the booze of your choice within the prescribed hours. Grocery stores and convenience stores are banned from selling anything other than beer below 3.5% strength, full stop.

Make sure to stock up for the weekend

The relatively strict hours employed by Systemet (as it’s known locally) can come as a shock. As a general rule, Systemet is open Monday to Wednesday 10am-6pm, Thursday and Friday 10am-7pm, and on Saturday 10am-3pm. This means that should you need some wine for dinner you’d better make sure you get to the shop on time because they don’t mess around: doors are locked exactly at closing time, with a guard at the door to let stragglers out. This may seem pretty restrictive but not if you look at the past.

Not all that long ago Systemet was open Monday through Friday 10am-6pm and that was that. No weekend hours and no extended hours. Back then all booze was kept behind the counter. When you went into the shop you took a number, a pencil and a piece of paper, then gazed at the bottles locked behind glass, chose what you wanted, wrote the order number down, and when you were called to the counter the clerk would fetch your order. These days most liquor shops are like grocery stores, where you can stroll the aisles and fill your basket, so you can see why many think things have taken a turn for the better.

Pick and choose yourself is an improvement

The good news is that the rumours of really expensive booze in Sweden are not necessarily true. At Systemet the prices are very reasonable, you can buy anything from a humble five-quid bottle of decent wine to one that costs many thousands. The staff is incredibly knowledgeable, so if you are cooking sautéed bull’s balls with hollandaise sauce and a side of pig’s tails, the staff will absolutely be able to pair this delightful meal with the perfect wine.

Most cities and towns have at least one Systembolaget

The bigger cities, such as Stockholm, Malmö and Gothenburg, have a number of Systemets scattered about, while smaller cities and most towns have at least one. Out on the islands you often need to order your booze ahead of time and then pick it between certain limited hours at the local grocery store. This varies from place to place, so if you’re heading out for a weekend in the archipelago check ahead; you may not have access to any liquor at all, other than at the local watering hole – if there is one.

Going out for drinks can be expensive

Speaking of watering holes, if you missed the opening hours of Systemet you can always go to your local pub or bar. These have their own rules about alcohol consumption. The law states that anyone over the age of 18 can order drinks in restaurants, bars and nightclubs, although individual establishments can set their own rules – and they do. It’s not unheard of for a popular nightclub to set a higher age limit, even making the age limit different for men and women (and no surprises here, the men’s age limit will always be higher than the women’s). This is also where the rumours about high prices for drinks comes in and it’s true: drinking in bars is much, much more expensive, which is why Swedes like to drink at home.

Are Swedes fierce drinkers?

Because people like to drink at home it’s important to remember one unspoken but very important important rule: always always bring your own drink to a party. The hosts may (or may not) have some spare wine or beer hanging around but if you don’t bring your own bottle you will be making a major faux pas, particularly if it’s a holiday weekend and everyone’s stocked up with enough to last for a few days. They’re not going to like you drinking all their booze.

Stock up before a big holiday or long weekend

And remember: if it is just before a holiday weekend? Get to Systemet early, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Huge lines stretching down the block have been known to form in the days before any big holiday, such as Christmas, Midsummer, Easter, or even if a big festival is in town. And if you are still in line when opening hours end? You’ll be tough out of luck.

So there you have it: everything you need to know to successfully drink in Sweden. Skål!

Yes, lines really do get this long before a holiday
landscape with balloons floating in the air

KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?

Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Edit article