Finnish Drinking Culture

Exploring Finnish drinking culture and the legal drinking age in Finland

Finland is stereotypically known as a country of heavy alcohol use — is this stereotype true and what is the Finnish drinking culture like? In this article, we explore the way Finns approach alcohol, what the Finnish drinking culture is like, how common the use of the alcohol is in Finland, and what the legal drinking age in Finland is.

Many of those planning to visit Finland are curious about different aspects of the Finnish culture, and the consumption of alcohol in Finland is a common question. But first, let’s start with the legal drinking age in Finland.

The legal age for buying beverages that contain up to 22% alcohol by volume in Finland is 18, and the legal age for buying stronger alcoholic beverages is 20. At bars and restaurants, however, the legal age for purchasing any kinds of drinks is 18. 

Taxation on alcoholic beverages is high, and Finns often take a ferry to neighboring Estonia to make large purchases at much lower rates. On cruises between Finland and Sweden, duty free shops filled with relatively cheap liquors are also a popular attraction.

What are the alcohol laws in Finland like?

One thing that often confuses foreigners visiting Finland is the distribution of alcohol sales. Mild alcoholic drinks that contain less than 5.5% alcohol, such as beer, cider, and long drinks, can be purchased at grocery stores. 

For everything stronger, you must head to Alko, the alcoholic beverage retail store that holds the monopoly for selling wine, spirits, and other drinks that have an alcoholic content of more than 5.5%. 

Alko, which was launched as government-owned company after the end of the prohibition period in 1932, has been an alcohol monopoly since it first opened its doors. Neighboring countries like Sweden and Norway also have alcohol monopolies. 

The monopoly of Alko has been contested many times by politicians and researchers, but a 2018 study by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare showed that 50% of respondents would allow the sale of wine at grocery stores, and 85% would prefer to keep the sale of strong beverages like vodka at Alko. 

Selling alcohol at Alko and grocery stores is permitted between 7AM and 9PM, although Alko is usually open between approximately 10AM and 9PM.

Finnish Drinking Culture

What is the drinking culture in Finland like?

The drinking culture in Finland is widespread and complex. Alcohol is part of the culture in the form of official holidays, celebrating and relaxing with friends, student events, and even the workplace.

In most official Finnish holidays, alcohol plays at least some part: Vappu, the May Day carnival-style event that celebrates working people and students over the course of two days, often includes sparkling wine and other alcoholic beverages. 

Juhannus, the midsummer celebration, is often the busiest day of the year in terms of alcoholic beverage purchases. New Year, as in most areas of the world, is typically celebrated with alcohol. 

Interestingly, the Finnish independence day, which takes place on December 6th, is considered more of a quiet and respectful event, and is not usually celebrated anywhere nearly as raucously as Vappu and Juhannus are.

The Finnish tradition of kalsarikännit, which has been translated in the past as pantsdrunk, refers to a form of the Finnish drinking culture where one stays home in their underwear (or other comfortable home-wear) to drink, without the intention of leaving the house to go to a bar or a party at any point of the evening. 

Due to the pandemic, the term kalsarikännit has gathered worldwide attention in recent years, much like the Swedish term fika and the Danish term hygge. The idea of kalsarikännit may not be that far off in its popularity: according to a survey by the Institute for Health and Welfare, participating Finns reported that 77% of their recent drinking episodes took place at home.

The Finnish student culture circles heavily around alcohol, especially at universities. Incoming students often go through different freshman christening rituals, many (if not all) involving alcohol. Parties and other alcohol-related events continue throughout the studies for those who wish to take part. 

In 2018, for example, students living in the university area of Otaniemi in Espoo attempted to buy out the entire stock of the new Alko that opened in the area in one day. Although the plan ultimately failed, long lines formed outside the new Alko from the moment it opened until closing time.

The Finnish sauna culture and the Finnish drinking culture tend to cross paths at times. The saunakalja, which translates directly to a sauna beer, or another alcoholic drink of choice is a common companion for a trip to the sauna. 

Many local businesses and organizations host sauna evenings for their staff, and the evening often continues at a bar or a restaurant after the sauna. During the summer, the streets of Finnish cities are filled with groups of friends and co-workers, all enjoying the summer evening by heading to parks, outdoor terraces, or by the water. 

Quite often, the sound of bottles clicking against each other inside plastic bags accompanies the groups. Drinking alcohol in public places is technically forbidden in Finland, but the police allows it as long as long as the drinking does not cause any disturbances. 

Drinking alcohol is not allowed on public transportation.

How much alcohol do Finns drink per year?

Statistically, alcohol consumption in Finland rates fairly low on a global scale: the World Health Organization (WHO) ranks Finland 31st in the world by consumption of liters of pure alcohol. According to the survey, Finns drinks 10.65 liters per each Finn over the age of 15, per year. 

Neighboring countries like Sweden and Norway rank slightly lower, with 9.04 and 7.14 liters per year, respectively, but Baltic countries like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania each rank higher than Finland, with 10.75, 13.19, and 12.78 liters, respectively. 

In fact, Latvia ranks second highest in the world (Czechia is first) and Lithuania is fifth.

The use of alcohol in Finland has stayed relatively stable throughout the past 40 or so years — in 1960, the average consumption of pure alcohol was 3.7 liters per each resident over 15 years old, but this figure rose to 6.5 by 1970 and was 9.0 in 1980. 

Since then, the figure has hovered between 9.0 and 12.0, reaching its highest point in 2007. This figure has been in steady decline ever since.

Finnish men drink more alcohol than Finnish women. Of the latest average consumption figure of 10.65 liters per person, men drank 16.56 liters and women drank 4.99 liters. This is common in most countries, as men statistically drink approximately three times as much alcohol on average as women.

In recent years, as in many other countries of the world, young people have lowered their use of alcohol. A 2016 Finnish survey found that 12% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 do not drink alcohol at all. In 2020, the equivalent figure for that age group had reached 29%.

Finnish Drinking Culture

What kind of alcoholic beverages do Finns like to drink?

Although some might consider Finns heavy vodka drinkers based on the stereotype (which, granted, is not completely unwarranted), the most popular alcoholic drink in Finland is — as in most countries — beer. So much so, in fact, that 46% of all the alcohol consumed in Finland in 2020 was beer, according to the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare

Mild wine, which is categorized as wine with an alcoholicity of less than 15%, was the second most popular category, with 21% of the overall consumption. Strong alcoholic beverages (more than 22% alcoholicity) took over 20.8% of all consumption, with mixed drinks (8.0%), cider (3.0%), and stronger wines (1.2%) following.

Finns take pride in their locally brewed beers, which include such brands as Karhu, Sandels, Lapin Kulta, Koff, and Karjala. The A. Le Coq brand, which was founded in Estonia and was eventually bought by Finnish company Olvi, is also popular. 

The Finns who do not care for beer but want to enjoy a bubbly alcoholic beverage often turn to cider. While in the United States cider usually refers to non-alcoholic beverages, in most of Europe cider means a cold, fermented alcoholic drink. 

Finnish cider brands, like Fizz, Upcider, and Happy Joe, are popular, but Finns also often buy Danish brand Sommersby and British brand Crowmoor.

The Finnish long drink or lonkero was created in 1952 in preparation for the Summer Olympics that took place that summer in Helsinki. In the years after World War II and prohibition, alcohol distribution in Finland was scarce and the government was concerned on how to accommodate the crowds of visitors. 

As a solution, the government introduced the pre-bottled long drink. After Alko first introduced the drink in 1952, it has remained the store’s most popular product to this day. A long drink consists of gin and grapefruit soda and typically has an alcoholicity of 5.5%, similar to beer and cider. 

In recent years, the drink has been launched in the United States and various countries in Asia.

Despite the Finns’ preference for beer, Finland is often considered to be part of the so-called vodka belt, along with neighboring countries like Russia, Sweden, and Norway. 

As mentioned, the reputation does have some legibility — the Finlandia brand, for example, is world-renowned for its vodka. Koskenkorva is perhaps the most popular brand of such spirits in Finland, although it is known in Finland as viina and not vodka. 

Viina refers to all liquors distilled from potatoes and/or grains. However, due to European Union regulations, the word “vodka” must be found on the Koskenkorva bottle.

How common is alcoholism in Finland?

Calculating the alcoholism rate in Finland can be difficult. The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare has specified guidelines for following alcohol consumption: for women, above seven servings per week is considered medium risk and 12–16 servings or more per week is considered high risk. 

For men, the equivalent numbers are 14 servings per week and 23–24 servings or more per week, respectively.

According to the institute’s latest survey on Finnish alcohol consumption habits, 3% of the female responders and 7% of the men drank more than the threshold for high risk for their gender. The second category limit, medium risk, was met by 10% of women and 17% of men. 

According to another source, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, approximately 400,000 Finns can be considered alcoholics. Another Institute for Health and Welfare survey found that 1,200,000 Finns experienced negative drinking consequences, such as accidents, arguments, or physical fights, within the past year. 

More than half (57%) of the respondents to that survey reported that they had exceeded the suggested drinking limit for one occasion — more than five servings in succession — at least once within the past year.

In comparison to countries like the United States, being an alcoholic in Finland can be a lonely road: although help is available, organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous are not nearly as widespread.

Celebrating Finnish drinking culture

The Finnish drinking culture circles around the idea of celebrating, whether the occasion is Midsummer or just a regular Saturday. In the cold and dark environment, Finns tend to find any reason for celebration — and one can hardly blame them! 

When the long winters give way to warm summer days again, Finns will undoubtedly come out of their homes, leave the kalsarikännit behind, and fill the parks and streets of the country again to celebrate a new season, often with a cold beverage in hand.

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