Sweden’s alcohol policy

With help from Nils Johan Tjärnlund

Sweden’s attitude to alcohol changed dramatically at the end of the 19th century. Influenced by the Independent Order of Good Templars, the growing Swedish temperance movement started campaigning for stricter measures. They no longer accepted wine and beer, and started demanding complete abstinence from alcohol. Their views made a deep impact on Swedish drinking culture.

For several decades, Swedish politicians had tried to do something about the heavy drinking habits across the country. Alcohol abuse caused so much social misery it was sometimes referred to as “the liquor deluge”. Through an initiative called “the Gothenburg system”, public liquor stores in Gothenburg would no longer be allowed to make a profit on the sale of spirits. Any surplus should go to charity instead. To promote sobriety and public order, alcohol could only be served together with food, in bright and spacious premises. Drunk or rowdy guests would be dismissed immediately. A minimum age of 18 years was introduced and it was not allowed to sell alcohol on credit.

Established in 1865, the Gothenburg system spread to many other cities during the coming decades. Smith tried to oppose the system as it was not to his advantage, but his efforts did not lead anywhere. In 1877, Stockholms Utskänkningsbolag was founded. This was a non-profit company that sold alcohol and managed a number of taverns for the public. In the same year, 106 of the capital’s 193 pubs had to close down and this is why 1877 is known as “the year of the pub deaths” in Sweden.

The new regulations and the temperance movement influenced the view on alcohol consumption in public areas, which was increasingly seen as abnormal behavior. A respectable citizen could no longer drink alcohol during working hours. Coffee replaced alcohol as conscientious workers’ favorite drink, and numerous cafés appeared. There were almost 800 cafés in Stockholm in 1887.

Many of the taverns run by Stockholms Utskänkningsbolag had a bad reputation. Despite strict rules about order, they were not particularly pleasant places to visit. In 1887, the newspaper Göteborgs-Posten described a tavern where ”the air is thick with all kinds of odors from the customers, the floor is covered with a mix of sawdust and snuff tobacco, and, on a rainy day, streams of filthy water.”

The underlying idea was to discourage people to go to public taverns. They should have a spartan interior, uncomfortable furniture, and ungenerous opening hours. In Stockholm, the word “krog” (a bar that serves food) was not highly regarded, and the middle class in the city avoided using it when they met up with people they considered more cultured. The Stockholm bars were mostly visited by the working classes. On the other hand, several elegant, high-quality restaurants had a license to sell alcoholic beverages. They were run by private landlords and served a well-off audience.

By the early 1900s, the Gothenburg system had been replicated in many Swedish cities. In 1905, it was made mandatory. The main purpose was to ensure financial control of hard liquor. Other alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine, fortified wine, port wine and sherry as well as imported spirits such as cognac, rum and whiskey were sold at special wine merchants or in regular grocery stores. In 1911, there were 49 wine merchants and 1,768 wine specialists only in Stockholm. There were also manufacturers of spirits, liqueurs, Swedish punsch and fruit wines all over the country. This would all change within a few years, however.

The person most heavily associated with the changes in Swedish alcohol policy in the early 20th century is Doctor Ivan Bratt. Bratt later became a politician and the entrepreneur that founded the alcoholic beverage companies AB Stockholmssystemet and Vin- & Spritcentralen. Bratt was convinced that a total ban on alcohol was the wrong way to go. On the other hand, he had a vision of a non-profit-making industry on all levels – from the peasants who sold the potatoes, the liquor manufacturers and the breweries to the merchants, the cafés and the restaurants.

During the Swedish general strike in 1909, it was prohibited to sell alcohol for a whole month. A side-effect of the ban was that the unruly behavior of rowdy drunkards disappeared from the streets. This strengthened Bratt’s conviction that access to alcohol had to be controlled in order to reduce alcohol abuse.

In 1912, the Gothenburg system introduced registration of alcohol purchases, although there was no limitation to the amount available to buy. One year later, Bratt founded the corresponding Stockholm system. In February 1914, during the so-called courtyard crisis, the company introduced a booklet called “motboken”. The system also became known as “the Bratt system”.

When somebody wanted to buy spirits, and later wines too, their booklet had to be stamped to show how much each person could buy. In 1916, individual controls became mandatory in the whole country. However what finally paved the way for the motboken booklet was the food shortage during the First World War. Cereals and potatoes could not be wasted on liquor production, and there was even a temporary but complete ban on spirits during a period in 1917. After the war, the booklet was fully introduced in the whole country, and only state-owned liquor stores were allowed to sell alcohol. As a result, private wine merchants closed their businesses. Beer above a certain strength could only be bought on prescription at the pharmacies.

At the same time, Ivan Bratt started to acquire private distributors of spirits. In 1917, he founded Aktiebolaget Spritcentralen, which later became AB Vin- & Spritcentralen. One of the companies he took over was Reymersholms Spritförädlingaktiebolag, whose roots went back to L.O. Smith’s liquor distillery at Reimersholme in Stockholm. The factory was in operation until 1978. Vin- & Spritcentralen also founded new factories. An example is Sundsvallsfilialen, which was set up in 1920 to supply the market in northern Sweden.

After a few years, Vin- & Spritcentralen became a state-owned company with exclusive rights to manufacture, import, export, and conduct wholesale trade of alcoholic beverages. Ivan Bratt’s vision was complete: The Swedish liquor industry was fully nationalized without any possibility of making a private profit. This monopoly was enforced until Sweden joined the European Union in 1995.