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Drink: the state has the monopoly; where to buy alcohol in Norway

Due to persistent amazement and a plethora of questions from both friends and visitors regarding Norwegian alcohol policy, I've found it necessary to venture into this topic. If, like me, you're a lover of wine (preferably red and preferably German) and regularly enter Norway through an airport, then the following scenario is all too familiar. Tourists stand waiting by the baggage carousel, while Norwegians dart into the duty-free shop like salamanders to stock up on alcohol.


Due to towering taxes, alcohol is indeed expensive here, but also because its sale has been tightly regulated by the Norwegian state for well over a century, creating a perception of it as a scarce commodity. To just immediately answer the question of where to buy alcohol in Norway; wine, spirits, and beer with a certain alcohol content are only purchasable at Vinmonopolet, and only during specific hours (Monday to Friday from 10:00 to 18:00 and on Saturday from 10:00 to 16:00).


A cafe in Norway

This might sound downright communist to you if you're accustomed to Berlin kiosks selling liter bottles of beer or Amsterdam night shops selling whiskey at 4:00 am. Therefore, I'd like to take this opportunity to offer you a brief history lesson because, trust me, understanding a bit more about why things are the way they are here will give you more appreciation and insight into the country. Let's dive in!


Vinmonopolet was established to secure trade with wine-producing countries in Europe. However, mitigating the harmful effects of alcohol has always been at the core of Vinmonopolet's activities since its founding in 1922. The roots of Vinmonopolet's history can be traced back to the time of the union with Denmark.


During Danish rule, there were strict restrictions on the production and sale of alcohol. When the union dissolved in 1814, alcohol taxes were lowered, and rules for the production of spirits were liberalized. Alongside technological advancements in the production sector, this contributed to an increase in spirit consumption, peaking around 1830-1840, where each adult consumed an average of about 13 liters of pure alcohol per year in the form of spirits. Mainly, it was men who consumed alcohol.


In cities, the working class consumed spirits and beer. The primary drinking days were Saturday and Monday. On Saturdays, wages were paid, and on Mondays, people drank to prepare for a heavy workweek – hence the name 'Blue Monday.' Even the upper and middle classes didn't hold back. They often gathered in 'social clubs' where they sang and debated. The escalating abuse of alcohol reinforced the temperance movement, which had a central role in both the labor movement and church circles. In 1871, the very first cooperative was established, a municipally controlled liquor store whose proceeds went towards "common beneficial work."


In 1913, the sale of wine and spirits was only allowed in major cities and some municipalities in East Norway. In 1916, a ban on wine and spirits was introduced, supported by the population, partly due to food shortages during World War I. Grain and potatoes had to be used for food production. After the war, there was a referendum on whether the ban on spirits should be maintained. In 1919, Norwegians went to the polls, and the abstainers won with a whopping 61.6 percent of the votes.


However, maintaining a ban was detrimental to trade policies. Norway relied on exporting various goods to countries like France, Portugal, and Spain. These countries threatened a trade boycott if Norway imposed restrictions on alcohol sales. Especially Portugal and Spain were crucial markets for Norwegian stockfish. It was also important to maintain good trade agreements regarding shipping, machinery, and wood processing.


After difficult negotiations with France, it was agreed that Norwegians could order wine directly through a central monopoly. On November 30, 1922, Vinmonopolet was established. The goal was, therefore, to ensure that as many people as possible would have access to wine, not to restrict sales, as many might think.


The ban on spirits was lifted in 1926. During the 1920s, issues with smuggled alcohol, home distillation, and clever ways to bypass the spirits ban increased. For example, one could obtain half a bottle of cognac as a cough medicine with a doctor's prescription. The ban had played its part. In 1926, Norwegians went to the polls again, and a majority voted for the legal sale of spirits. The prohibition era was over, and Vinmonopolet began selling spirits the following year. However, there were restrictions on who could buy spirits. Sales were not allowed to individuals under 21 years old, intoxicated individuals, or alcohol abusers. In 1930, a blacklist system was introduced.


Certain individuals were put on a blacklist and were not allowed to buy spirits. This system was maintained until the mid-1970s. Vinmonopolet was closed between April 9 and June 10, 1940. Nevertheless, Vinmonopolet managed to keep operations reasonably stable during the war years. A massive production complex in Hasle was completed in the early 1930s, ensuring that Vinmonopolet could produce and remain open during the war. To prevent empty stocks, Vinmonopolet implemented rationing. There was also a ban on forming queues during certain periods. If someone queued before the morning opening, they received a fine and lost their rationing card for a specific period. So, people often walked 'accidentally' by just before the 8:00 am opening, ready to dash to the entrance as soon as Vinmonopolet opened.


Imports from Europe were limited during the war. To address shortages of cognac and whisky, Vinmonopolet began blending Norwegian homemade potato brandy into these drinks and sold them as "pre-cut spirits." In 1941, plank brandy was introduced, producing spirits from waste products of the cellulose industry. This saved Vinmonopolet during the war because grain and potatoes had to be used for food.


When peace came in 1945, there was an explosive increase in alcohol consumption. However, during the 1950s, alcohol consumption remained stable and relatively moderate. It was a time of thrift and the country's reconstruction. At Vinmonopolet, there was a gradual modernization. The stores had to be larger, brighter, with improved logistics and queue systems.


There were relatively few Vinmonopolet stores throughout Norway; there were no branches in the former Akershus and areas like Lillestrøm, Jessheim, Asker, or Bærum. It was also not possible to buy spirits between Larvik and Kristiansand or in the Møre og Romsdal county. In total, Vinmonopolet had around 46 stores nationwide by 1955.


The temperance cause was revived in the post-war period. Among other measures, taxes were increased, strict opening hours were imposed, and blacklists were maintained. There were also limited numbers of new stores, and existing stores often had to be somewhat hidden with an anonymous facade.


Alcohol policy and Vinmonopolet underwent slight modernization, and in the 1970s, dissatisfaction with Vinmonopolet increased. In addition to sales, import, and production of wine and spirits, Vinmonopolet was also responsible for controlling the serving of spirits. Inspectors from Vinmonopolet visited restaurants and bars to ensure they charged the correct price and served the correct amount of spirits. Nightlife grew in the 1970s, and society gradually became more liberal regarding the sale and serving of alcohol. Vinmonopolet was seen as a hindrance to the liberalization of alcohol policy.


The prosperity and education level of the population increased, cultural life flourished, and Norwegians slowly became more refined in terms of food and drink. However, we were still far from the European drinking pattern, and total alcohol consumption increased with prosperity.


In 1975, a ban on alcohol advertising was introduced. This means that actors associated with the sale of alcohol cannot advertise their products. This still exists today.


Discontent with Vinmonopolet increased during the 1980s, in line with the wave of liberalization in Norwegian society. A new CEO, Einar Joyce, introduced a new, more market-oriented business approach. The bag – the anonymous gray, so-called shed bag – had been heavily criticized. Now it turned burgundy with the Polet logo in gold. A marketing plan was introduced with products focused on what Norwegians actually asked for, and the extensive price list received a more modern look with colors, images, and information about beverages with food. A large, beautiful store opened in Klingeberggaten in Oslo with disco mirrors on the ceiling, benches where customers could sit while waiting in line, and wines displayed in glass showcases. Nevertheless, there was still trade over the counter and no self-service as we know it today.


A new director in 1992, Kjell Frøyslid, would face significant challenges: a sales decline due to recession after the 1980s, increasing border trade, and, especially, great uncertainty about whether Vinmonopolet could be maintained under the EEA agreement. Vinmonopolet was an essential part of the political and legal negotiations with the EU on the EEA agreement. At that time, Vinmonopolet effectively consisted of five monopolies: production, export, import, distribution, and sales. In 1994, the ESA concluded that a monopoly on export and import had no impact on public health or alcohol consumption in Norway and, therefore, was not essential to the main purpose of an alcohol monopoly. It was also concluded that production and sales could not belong to the same monopoly company.


The production part became Arcus, while sales with the stores remained with Vinmonopolet. Room was given for private parties to start importing alcoholic beverages for sale through Vinmonopolet. Today, over 500 small and large import companies supply wine and spirits to Vinmonopolet.


The new Vinmonopolet implemented significant changes in the purchasing system, tax system, and product range to adapt to the EU, forming the basis for much of what we know today as Vinmonopolet.


At the end of the 1990s, public and political resistance to Vinmonopolet increased, and more and more people advocated for the abolition of Vinmonopolet and the sale of alcohol in supermarkets. Much of the dissatisfaction was due to the few stores, and many people had to travel far to shop. In 1996, Vinmonopolet had a total of 114 stores, compared to about 340 today. The business operations also seemed outdated and old-fashioned with trade over the counter, long queues – often for hours, limited opening hours, and a relatively limited choice of products. Norwegians also started to travel more, and sales at duty-free airports and border trade increased. There was a need for modernization of the Polet, and a transformation was initiated under the leadership of the then CEO Knut Grøholt. In 1996, the Vinmonopolet board gave input to the government that they wanted more stores, longer opening hours, and experiments with self-service. They were allowed to open 50 new stores over five years and slightly longer opening hours, but the government did not allow self-service stores.


In 1998, the government finally approved a self-service trial. Discontent with the Polet in the population was still significant. Two decades of liberalization of Norwegian society, along with increasing travel and experience with wine in foreign stores, led to 8 out of 10 people wanting wine in stores in 1998. There were also extensive challenges with the smuggling of spirits, and Vinmonopolet sold less than half of Norwegian distilled spirits consumption. Something had to be done to prevent the closure of Vinmonopolet.


The self-service trial would be conducted in 14 stores and evaluated after two years to ensure it did not lead to a significant increase in alcohol consumption and contributed to greater legitimacy for Vinmonopolet. The trial was successful, and Vinmonopolet began a historic process of converting all stores to self-service, parallel to an ambitious expansion of the number of stores. This, along with a greater focus on customer service and expertise over the past two decades, has ensured that Vinmonopolet stands very firmly in society today.


You're still here? That's amazing. Anyway, it still sparks discussion. And it always will.

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