Whether you prefer to stay sober or you’re the first to shout skål, there’s no denying that drinking is an important part of Danish culture.
Text: Sarah Redohl
Across Scandinavia one thousand years ago, neither a business deal nor a marriage could be formalised without alcohol. Moreover, not just one drink, but several, were required in Viking culture as a sign of “mutual trust and respect.” More than a millennium later, alcohol consumption remains an integral part of Danish culture.
According to the European Commission, nearly 40 percent of Danish adults report regular heavy drinking. That’s nearly double the EU average and the highest in Europe. Even Danish youth top the list! A World Health Organisation report found that Danish teens consume the most alcohol in Europe within their age group.
Alcohol consumption is so prevalent in Denmark that sobriety in social settings can sometimes feel isolating. Although this is probably true in many countries, it can feel exacerbated in cultures where heavy drinking is so common, and alcohol seems to be the social lubricant that greases one’s way into Danes’ social world.
For usually reserved Danes, “[drinking] helps us lose control,” said Thomas Vinteberg, director of the critically acclaimed Danish film Another Round. Literally titled Druk (binge drinking) in Denmark, the film has been referred to as “a cinematic love letter to Denmark’s drinking culture.” Like many Danes, Vinteberg attributes Danes’ drinking habits to their Viking roots.
Drunken Danes and sober Swedes
It’s true; alcohol played an important role in Viking culture. Ale was often consumed by both adults and children all day every day because it was safer to drink than water (though the alcohol content was much lower). And the drinking horns in which ale was often served? Considering they can’t be set down between sips, it’s safe to say they weren’t made for moderation.
But modern-day Denmark’s Viking neighbours left the party long ago. According to the WHO report, 42 percent of Danish 15-year-olds have been drunk at least twice, compared to just 16 percent in Norway and 11 percent in Sweden.
One theory behind this divergence is the strength of 19th-century temperance movements that raised alcohol prices while limiting access in Sweden and Norway. Those temperance movements never quite caught on across the Baltic and North seas; affordable alcohol can be purchased 24/7 on nearly every street corner in Denmark.
But, high alcohol consumption comes with its own costs. According to the Danish Cancer Society (Kræftens Bekæmpelse), the overuse of alcohol in Denmark annually costs society 13 billion DKK and results in 3000 deaths. They’ve been advocating increasing the minimum legal age to purchase alcohol, but those policies seem about as popular among Danes as the 19th-century temperance movement.
"If danes' drinking habits originate from their viking roots, the expectation that everyone participates may, too."
Another side effect of Denmark’s drinking culture? The sense of isolation for those who choose to stay sober. Internationals have reported finding few non-alcoholic beverage options at the average Danish party; others report spending significant time defending their choice not to drink each evening.
“Drinking is a sort of social contract among Danes,” wrote one respondent to a popular Reddit thread asking for alternatives to alcohol in Danish social situations. “It’s definitely part of our culture to expect everyone to take part in the social ritual of [getting drunk],” wrote another. However, most suggested doing one’s best to blend in: drink non-alcoholic beer, nurse a single glass of wine all night, disguise a glass of water with a slice of lime.
Some may instead opt to do as the Danes do: drink more. In a 2016 study by the University of Southern Denmark, international students consistently reported seeing higher alcohol consumption in Denmark than they were used to. Their solution? Many adapted to the drinking culture among their Danish peers.
A study from Aarhus University about cultural norms of alcohol use in Denmark summarised it well: “Other people expect that you are going to drink like them.” As one respondent said, it’s a nuisance if one person drinks more than everyone else. On the other hand, participants said alcohol consumption is accepted and expected in most situations (except driving, work, and some sports). So basically, if you want to drink as the Danes do, don’t drink more than others, but don’t drink nothing.
Share the skål
If Danes’ drinking habits originate from their Viking roots, the expectation that everyone participates may, too. The Vikings believed alcohol to be a gift from the gods, and “just as the gods had shared it with humans, people were expected to share it with each other.”
Perhaps there is a social cost to sobriety in Denmark, just as not speaking Danish or ignorance of local customs also come with a cost. I wouldn’t know; I drank like a Dane long before I moved to Denmark. But I believe whether you prefer to stay sober or you’re the first to shout skål should always be a personal choice - and I’ll bet most Danes would ‘cheers’ to that.