Written by Kym Wolfe

Apparently Swedes have a “bittersweet relationship with alcohol.” Who knew? Not me, until I visited the Spritmuseum in Stockholm where I learned …

Historically liquor meant strength and manliness. Vodka kept soldiers healthy and brave. Serious drinking on May 1st kicked off the growing season, and farmers sprinkled vodka over the fields to ensure fertility and a good harvest.

Whenever guild members gathered they would raise a toast to Christ, the Virgin Mary, and a never-ending list of saints. The rules were simple: drink the same amount as everyone else and behave. If you dared to fall down, throw up or pass out you would be fined.

For an unaccompanied woman to drink in public was unthinkable. The only exception seemed to be for the “oarsmadames” who taxied people around Stockholm in rowboats (the city is made up of 14 islands). In one painting, two oarsmadames stand in their small boats and raise a toast, a large uncorked bottle on the dock between them. Perhaps there was an understanding that they needed the sustenance to fuel their rowing. 

Vodka was considered as nourishing as meat and bread — even young children had their daily tipple. During times of famine mothers moaned that their poor malnourished children had to make do with water in their porridge. Help was on the way …

Countess Eva de la Gardie was the first woman elected to the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences in 1748. Her claim to fame? Transforming potatoes into vodka. Thanks to Eva, grains could be used to feed the starving masses instead of being turned into vodka …there were plenty of potatoes for that! 

Swedes drank copious amounts of alcoholic punsch during the 19th century, raising their glasses in a show of national pride referred to as “Punsch Patriotism.” Sugar was a status symbol, and punsch was packed with sugar … giving rise to another common phenomenon: “Punsch Belly”. 

By the late 19th century, thanks to a vocal temperance movement, alcohol education became a mandatory school subject. Terrifying images, designed to scare children from even trying alcohol, warned: “Danger might be lurking in the very first glass!” Picture fat-choked hearts and livers, and booze-ravaged faces. A “vodka dragon” — shaped like a still with vodka pouring out of it — was surrounded by paths leading to prison, the madhouse and the poorhouse. 

“Good citizens” were issued an alcohol ration book. Married women, substance abusers and the poor need not apply. One book per household, to the man of the house. Not having one meant you were not a trusted citizen. Shameful! 

Today the Swedes have developed a taste for the bubbly — Sweden is now the world’s tenth largest Champagne market. One exhibit dispelled a myth that refuses to die: that the champagne coupe was designed to match the shape of Marie-Antionette’s breasts. She “actually did have china cups that were clearly breast-shaped, but they were intended for goat’s milk, and were not modelled after the queen’s own womanly charms.”

Vodka remains the spirit of choice for traditional holidays, though, with sales peaking at Christmas, Easter and Midsummer. Drink vodka, eat pickled herring, crayfish and surströmming (fermented herring), and sing schnaps songs. And of course propose a toast.

For tips on how to do that properly, we turned to Swedish actor Max von Sydow at the “Skål School with Max” exhibit. Raise your glass. Look the person you are toasting in the eye — one eyebrow lowered, slight smirk. Say “Skål”! Give a slight nod. Down the hatch! Another direct and serious look in the eye, with furrowed brow. Put your glass down. Elegant and effective. 

Thanks Max, and skål!  


About the author

Kym Wolfe

Kym Wolfe is a London-based writer and frequent contributor to Eatdrink. She also serves as the magazine's Copy Editor. Find more of her stories at