Despite being at different ends of the globe, New Zealand and Finland have a few things in common – one of them being a strong drinking culture. There are subtle differences in the approach and underlying reasons for this love of drinking, but one that stands out is how people in Finland obtain their alcohol.
Like Finnish supermarkets, those in New Zealand sell beer – but they also sell wine. In fact, they often have tastings where you can sip on a (plastic) glass of wine while you shop. In Finland however, the supermarkets can’t sell anything that contains more than 4.7% alcohol.
So while Finnish supermarkets have vast selections of beer and cider, you won’t find anything stronger. Cans are also sold individually if you desire, which is a bit different to how it is generally sold in New Zealand.
Anything with a higher alcohol content is sold at Alko stores, which are owned wholly by the Finnish government. There are 350 stores around Finland and while their website says 90% of Finns live within 10km of a store, they can be surprisingly hard to find.
Being a monopoly, prices are standard across all Alko stores – and so is the selection, although some stores will stock a bigger range than others. If there’s a quantity or item you want for a special occasion you can order it in (although most Finns will go to Estonia or Russia for cheap booze and bring it back by the car load for a wedding).
In Alko stores, wines are sorted by country, in alphabetical order. There’s often a good range of organic wines and lots of spirits, including Finnish vodkas. Finns aren’t traditionally big wine drinkers, but the biggest selling items in the last quarter were white wines and red wines, followed by vodka and spirits.
The Alko website claims that 80% of Finns are happy with the current arrangements, however the Opposition Party in Finland has called for taxes on alcohol to be dropped, saying Finns live in a prohibition era. They claim the government’s involvement in alcohol sales leaves the main population punished for the drinking problems of a few, without the underlying reasons people drink being addressed.
In the meantime, I’m missing the great range of Australian and New Zealand wines back home, but am learning a bit about European ones – at more affordable prices. And while you can’t just pick up a bottle of red with your groceries, perhaps the time it has taken for me to find the nearest Alko will save me from becoming one.