“Systembolaget”–Swedens state-controlled, only shop to get spirits. Good or bad?

The Systembolaget sign

Discussion in Sweden about our alcohol monopoly almost always turn political. This is not my intention here. I really don’t care strongly one way or the other. I don’t like some parts of it, and some other are really great because of it. I’m telling you here because the monopoly plays a big part in this story.

Systembolaget — The System Company.

The Swedish state has a monopoly on alcohol retail in Sweden. Exempt from that monopoly is lättöl (light beer, 0,0–2,8% abv) and folköl (“people’s beer”, 2,8–3,5% abv) which can be sold to anyone over 18 in regular retail stores. On top of that, the state also had both production and import monopoly until 1994, if I recall correctly.

That means that if you want to buy spirits in Sweden you go to the state-controlled retail shop: Systembolaget. Almost all Swedish cities and urban areas have at least one. I have two within walking distance from my home in Stockholm. Opening hours as of today are most often 10 am to 7 pm on weekdays, 10 am to 3 pm on Saturdays, and Sundays closed. They all look the same and offer about the same products. Carrying great responsibility — legal, political and cultural — Systembolaget has been providing Swedes with alcohol since the late 19th century, and in quite interesting ways which I will give insights to along the way.

In this post, what I’ll focus on is what this means for bourbon availability. Systembolaget — with its assignation to responsibly administer access to alcohol — has a rigorous procedure in deciding what goes on the shelf in its stores. Functioning for the public good — transparency is required. As a result: two times every year Systembolaget releases a launch plan including customer mapping, sustainability plans, sales statistics etc. etc, to the public. Click here to take a look at the complete first launch plan for 2016 (in English).

To oversimplify something far more complicated (and something I don’t think I really understand), for a new bourbon to get introduced to the Swedish market, Systembolaget makes a decision based on sales of the spirit category ”American whiskey”, and indications of consumer trends generally. They then release a specified need to the market, and distributors get to make an offer. All the offers are collected and spirit samples are blind tested and quality assured by a research department, no information other than requested category is given. The product then is vetted against a whole bunch of other criteria. Somewhere along the way, there’s a discussion about meeting production and sales demands (purchase price, quantity, brand stability etc.) probably. After all that the bourbon, whatever chosen, hits the shelf, gets sold (hopefully) and a sales evaluation is made further down the road. This happens four times a year, with small-scale/local launches occurring about every month (small-scale launches is how I recently got my hands on this 1792 Small Batch, made available in may this year).

Bourbon, unfortunately, is not a big seller in Sweden — and the lack of demand from Swedish consumers results in new bourbon rarely becoming available. If I am correct (which Systembolaget customer support tells me I am), the first bourbon was introduced as a national shelf product in 1993 (two actually, Jim Beam White Label and Four Roses bourbon). So bourbon has been available for 23 years. If you spread out every national launch of a bourbon (about twelve) over 23 years, we get a new bourbon every other year.

One. Every. Other. Year.

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