From where I sit in my second-floor hotel room on Colbjørnsensgade, a block from Copenhagen’s central railway station, I can look out the window at a shabby little storefront across the street. BOBBY’S KIOSK, reads the sign. Big letters spell out the merchandise for sale. VIN. ØL. SPRIT. In other words: Wine. Beer. Spirits. It’s after midnight, and the shop remains open. It was Bobby, if that’s really his name, who sold me the wine I’m drinking now, a Chilean sauvignon blanc that cost 45 Danish kroner, or about $6.50. It’s a perfectly decent wine.
I’ve been to this city a dozen times but somehow never noticed how easily available booze is in Denmark, compared with Sweden and Norway, where I live. Within a block or two of my hotel, there are several holes in the wall like Bobby’s that, in addition to candy and potato chips, sell alcoholic beverages until well into the night. In this regard, Denmark is a lot like Spain, Italy, and many other European countries.
For people in some U.S. states, this is nothing to write home about. Late one night a few years ago, when I was in Baton Rouge on business, I couldn’t fall asleep and decided to walk over to a nearby 24-hour Walmart. I was stunned to discover that, at 4 AM, thanks to Louisiana’s lack of restrictions on package sales, I could pick up not only a pair of socks or a lawnmower but all the vodka, gin, or scotch I wanted—and at affordable prices. Baton Rouge looked like a sleepy town, but the liquor laws seemed to me the height of sophistication.
By contrast, one morning when I was Philadelphia, I left my hotel on what I assumed would be a simple mission: getting a bottle of wine to have with lunch. After searching much of the neighborhood around Rittenhouse Square without success, I finally found a store on Locust Street. It was about 10:30 AM on a Sunday, but the place didn’t open until noon. It was obviously a state-run outlet—spacious and antiseptic-looking. As I later learned, Pennsylvania law permitted the sale of wine and spirits only at these commonwealth-owned emporia, which, on Sundays, were prohibited from opening in the morning.
These laws obviously have deep historical roots. As I reflected while traipsing around the City of Brotherly Love, the French Catholics who settled Louisiana had very different ideas about drinking from the Quakers who founded Pennsylvania (though, as it turned out, the Keystone State’s severe laws have less to do with William Penn than with the killjoy attitude of a teetotaling governor, who, when Prohibition ended in 1933, was determined to keep its spirit alive). Yet it’s baffling that these differences persist. Since my frustrated quest in Philadelphia, I’ve discovered that (a) almost everybody in Pennsylvania loathes its liquor laws, yet (b) somehow major reform has proved impossible. This year, to be sure, restrictions were slightly loosened—some outlets, for example, will now be allowed to open at 11 on Sundays. Hallelujah!
If you really want to see some nanny-stating on the hooch front, though, go north. In Sweden, if you’re in the market for wine or spirits, you’ve got to track down a Stockholm-run Systembolag, where the hours are tight and the prices high. Then there’s Norway, which—though nearly the size of California—contains only 270 government-run stores (Vinmonopol, or “wine monopolies”) where you can buy wine or liquor. The 350-square-mile municipality where I live contains exactly one pol. Closed on Sundays, it shutters at 5 PM Monday through Wednesday, at 6 Thursday and Friday, and at 3 PM on Saturday. As for the prices, let’s just say that Norwegians regularly drive to Sweden for better deals. While you can get 1.75 liters of Smirnoff vodka at a Walmart in Baton Rouge for $19.95, less than half that amount of the same product, 700 ml, costs the equivalent of $25.17 in Sweden and $35.36 in Norway. Why? Because.
The other night, at a Copenhagen bar with a friend, I wondered aloud how it is that, with such disagreeable alcohol laws in Sweden and Norway, Denmark should be so much more reasonable. He shrugged. “Denmark is really in Europe. Sweden and Norway aren’t.” That explanation makes as much sense as any other.
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