Not Drinking in Finland

Written by on January 24, 2012 in Travel - 1 Comment

This is a guest post by Katja Kärki.

There are Alkos everwhere in Finland. Yeah, I know - sorry. (image: Earth-Bound Misfit, I)

In Finland, we mostly drink to get drunk, and drinking is not necessarily a social event. There’s even an informal expression for drinking at home alone (or with a friend): kalsarikännit, or ‘getting drunk wearing only long underwear’.

Finns like to drink along with every feeling and occasion: celebration and mourning; beginnings and endings; periods of stress and periods of relaxation. Alcohol is certainly the main focus in every party in Finland – it’s as if we´re unable to have fun without it. Friday nights actually look similar to those in England, only less busy.

Normal policy on a night-out is pretty much the same as in England. Everyone brings their own drinks to pre-parties and it’s not very common to share. This is because drinking is like a performance, the object of which is to get drunk, and sharing might mess up your master plan. Of course, if somebody has brought some new liqueur from the ferry, they might offer you a sample – Finns love going on alcohol runs to Sweden or Estonia. But when buying alcohol, the main criterion is usually “will I get drunk with this?”

Drinking is like a performance, the object of which is to get drunk, and sharing might mess up your master plan.

The only place you can buy spirits, liquor and wine in Finland is the state-owned monopoly store ‘Alko’, whilst beer and cider can be bought in supermarkets but only until 9pm. Why us Finns are so fond of booze, I’m not sure. Perhaps because we’re a nation of shy people and being intoxicated makes it easier to socialise. Others theorise that it’s to help cope with the long, dark cold winters. Whatever the reason, it’s also implicated in a lot of problems, such as accidents, premature deaths and domestic violence.

Not drinking in Finland

People in Finland are becoming more health-conscious, so not drinking at a party won’t raise too many eyebrows. People will almost certainly ask why you aren’t drinking, but you won’t be forced to partake. If you are a foreigner in Finland you are fundamentally interesting and just this on its own means you can get away with not drinking. Not that you won’t miss out in some way – a sure-fire way of making yourself popular with Finns is to try one of our national peculiarities, such as salty liquorice liquor.

Drinking in Helsinki (image: wili_hybrid)

When us Finns are drunk we can get very affectionate because we normally don’t express our positive feelings. This means you might even suddenly be the best friend of somebody you just met in the toilets. At this point it can be slightly offensive not to accept a shot as a token of friendship. Still, it’s very easy for a non-drinker to blend into the happy crowd, just as long as you don’t knock over somebody’s pint: Finns are also eager to fight.

When it comes to drinking and driving, Finns are quite responsible, and don’t tend to have even a sip. This means that one of the main risks of going alcohol-free is that you might be expected to drive. Another is that, since everyone gets so totally wasted, you might feel like you’re obliged to take care of their bags and generally look out for them.

Alternative activities

Due to the climate, Finland is a country where people spend a lot of time at home. Café and restaurant culture isn’t on the same level as in continental Europe, though it is improving. Cafés don’t stay open late and it’s more common to meet friends in bars. During the week, pubs and bars are increasingly offering activities such as pool, board games or pub quizzes, in an effort to make customers stay, and on these occasions, it’s totally fine to order a coffee or tea.

A popular way to spend time in a cold country like Finland is the sauna. Friends and communities commonly organize sauna evenings and this can be a great way to bond with people. Even in the sauna, some people still like to pop open a chilled beer or cider, though you can just as easily bring a bottle of soda – an especially good idea given that alcohol and saunas may be a dangerous combination.

Alternative drinks

In the shops you can find several non-alcoholic beers, ciders and wines, and in bars you can usually get plain soda or fruit juice. Non-alcoholic beers tend to be imported, although there is at least one domestic variety: Ukko-Pekka (0.0%).

Conclusion

Finland may be known for heavy drinking but it’s not expected from foreigners. As long as you can stand the excesses of others, you should get on just fine.

Katja is a well-travelled Finn who doesn’t mind a nightcap but prefers to leave the hangovers to others. She blogs about the slow life at The Little Red Book.

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One Comment on "Not Drinking in Finland"

  1. Allan January 24, 2012 at 8:53 pm · Reply

    I lived in Finland for 4 years, ’99-’03, and I recognise most of the picture of the land that’s painted here, but certain aspects don’t really ring any bells… I don’t feel that Finns drink any more, or any less, than Brits. I don’t feel that Finnish drinking is any more or less goal-oriented at getting pissed than British drinking is.

    Although, as I write that, I find it might say more about the company I tend to keep, and therefore see, than the overall drinking cultures of the two countries.

    I’ve also lived in Krakow, Poland and Seville, Spain; both of those countries fall into the same category, in my opinion. People drink, they drink a lot, and they drink to get drunk. They drink socially, they drink on their own.

    I haven’t noticed a significant difference in the drinking cultures of the places I’ve lived in. Again, this might have something to do with me, but even the much-put-forward theory of ‘cafe culture’ romance countries where people drink more reasonably and it’s not as tolerable to get drunk… I didn’t notice that. I didn’t notice it when I saw people buying several bottles of wine for a night in, and I certainly didn’t notice it in the bars and clubs where, despite smaller beer-measures, the overall amounts of alcohol consumed seem pretty even with Northern Europe on any given Friday night.

    Much of Spain may believe that rum doesn’t count as a drink, however…

    In short, I think the amount of drinking in all of the countries I’ve mentioned was pretty even and the reputation for hard drinking that the Finns have over, say, the Spanish, isn’t really there in reality.

    What I will say is that where the author sees Finns as loving a fight, I have to disagree… Male friends like to a bit of rough-and-tumble after a few drinks (oo-er) in Finland, but the more violent sorts of blood-extracting fights that are commonplace in every British town and city over every weekend were very rare. I’ve said this many times, but I witnessed less fights than I can count on the fingers of one hand during my time in Finland – and I was involved in, probably, half of them.

    I feel a bit adopted-homesick for Finland now…

    Ihana Leijonat Ihana!

    Salmiakki Kossu FTW.

    *sheds a gentle tear*

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