Thursday, 12 April 2012

Alko - A Heroic Institution

What do you call an 80 year old always full of alcohol? Alko.

Yes, the national alcoholic beverage retailing monopoly in Finland celebrated 80 years just last week.

Through Alko, the Finnish state controls where, aside from restaurants and bars, Finns can buy alcohol above 4.7% proof (at Alko shops only), what they can buy (whatever Alko has deemed appropriate to distribute and stock) and when they can buy it (9am-8pm Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on Saturday, and not at all on Sunday).

In other words, if you fancy that rather special Cuban rum or if, like me last year, you leave buying the wine for Christmas until Christmas Eve, well tough.

Of course, I should have checked the Alko opening times on their website. This is the very same site where you can also check what Alko sells, as long as it doesn't exceed 22% alcohol, because “Finnish legislation prohibits the advertising of hard spirits and other such activities that aim at promoting the sales of hard spirits.”

Really? It’s enough to drive anyone to drink!

I do find the idea of a state-controlled distribution of alcohol a bit of anachronism. It’s a cross between the soviet era command-and-control approach and the western-European well-meaning-but-ultimately-condescending nanny-state model of the last century. But it’s not unique to Finland though (for example Sweden, Norway, and Iceland all have similar systems) and Finns seem to be OK with it.

Before Alko of course, the situation was much worse: there was a prohibition in Finland for 13 years from 1919! So actually it must have come a huge relief when the first stores opened on the 5th of April 1932 at 10am (a date clearly designed to be remembered as it’s 543210, like some countdown to the big event).

I also read that during the 1939-1940 winter war, Alkoholiliike, as it was then called, was involved in the production of Molotov cocktails. I wonder if the Finnish army was ever told: “sorry, no Molotov cocktails, it’s after 8pm, you should have thought about it earlier”.

All things considered, I guess Alko is some kind of double hero – providing relief from prohibition and helping keep the Soviets at bay. Two good reasons to celebrate Alko for reaching the ripe old age of 80 years!



  1. Hehe, great post! And I agree, I sure am glad that the ban of alcohol was lifted (it being illegal caused more health problems than having it legal, interesting fact all things considered...) and Alko made its entrance, but now it's 2012... C'mon, all this nonsense about having more and more strict laws concerning alchol sell and advertising, it's getting ridiculous. Now they plan to water down the regular beer in the market?!

    These nanny-politics fail to see the more grave reasons behind alcohol misuse. It isn't because it was advertised in the wrong place or because getting your hands on it isn't difficult enough, any educated guesses on the more realistic reasons behind alcohol afflicted diseases and social problems...? ;o

  2. I always wonder if Alko's strict attitude has actually made any positive difference at all to problems with alcohol among Finns. My own belief is that over time they've just learned to be super-organised about procuring their alcohol within Alko opening hours (well, Finns seem to be super-organised about most things, anyway), and the limited choice at Alko is seen as taking the pressure off a bit.

  3. The selection isn't that bad and there's a separate selection for ordering stuff in. Furthermore, it's not like you're not allowed to import alcohol for personal use i.e. mail order from abroad is always an option.

    I think Alko being a monopoly makes them a fairly large buyer in the international markets, which does come with its perks.

  4. Also a good thing about Alkos is if you're living in a small town. The basic selection in a normal Alko is way better than would be available considering the market in a town like that. Now I can be assured than when I go to my small home town, that there's a bottle of Rochefort 10 to be had. :) In bigger places the effect is sadly the opposite.