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Vol 2, No 22
5 June 2000
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Amber Coast Boozing in the Baltics
Mel Huang

Without sounding trivial or trite, one can say that alcohol has played a large role in the history of the Baltic states and continues to do so. Drinking, whether it is personal, social or even work-related, remains a major part of life in the three countries. Already heavily imbibing nations, the 50 years of Soviet occupation only intensified the drinking habits of Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians; as with other victims of Soviet rule, from Russians to Georgians, the Balts drank themselves to what the author Vitali Vasiliev has called a state of "oblivion" to avoid the realities of drab Soviet life.

Ice beer from Latvia's leading Aldaris brewery
Latvian ice
With the free market and McDonalds inevitably came the commercialisation and "prettying-up" of alcoholic beverages and soon designer specialities such as flavoured vodkas and "ice" beers appeared. Instead of drinking illicit oil-slicked liquids from bottles with crookedly applied labels, alcohol consumers now had a choice - one that has increased hundred-fold in the nearly nine years since the end of Soviet hegemony. Even swill such as American Red Dog "beer" and the fantasticly smokey single-malt scotch Oban can now be found with ease in the Baltic countries. Alongside those are, of course, local unique products such as the sweeter-than-molasses Lithuanian special honey liqueur krupnikas or the dark and bock-like Saku tume beer from Estonia. Freedom of choice, as they say.

More is better

However, most people concerned with the state of alcohol in the Baltics are worried not about the quality and choice but about the quantity of consumption. Last year's exceedingly hot summer caused a myriad of problems, ranging from increased alcohol-assisted beach drowning accidents to high-profile drink-drive cases
MP Kalev Kallo, involved in drink-drive incident
MP Kalev Kallo
driving drunk
(see Amber Coast from 2 August 1999, "Hitting the Bottle, and the Road", for more on this story). For several weeks, prominent figures on the political scene were, one by one, stopped for drink-drive or involved in some other incident involving alcohol (a mayor wandering the streets on Friday afternoon dead drunk, a drunken fight involving a broken bottle and its sharp edge, drink-fuelled sexual harassment by a county governor at an official event). Recently, Lithuania's consul to an Arabic country was recalled, with the suspected cause having been linked to public drinking.

Overall, there seems to be less attention paid to alcohol-related problems in the Baltic states. There is no strong temperance movement as there is in Finland, where alcoholism has been called the national disease. Toasting a sunny afternoon in one of Riga's squares with several beers or getting absolutely legless during an evening sauna session in Tartu is considered absolutely normal behaviour. Nevertheless, the level of consumption has caused the usual inevitable problems such as drink-drive accidents, illness due to high intake of alcohol and domestic problems. Drink-drive is especially prevelant, despite the no-tolerance rules in the three countries. At least in Tallinn, the city is inundated with reliable taxis (unlike Riga or Vilnius), though such phenomena as having a designated driver or leaving one's car in town and cabbing home are still not common practice. Many Vilnius bars actually have breathalysers, but whether they are used is another question.

The availability of alcohol has undoubtedly contributed to the problem of high consumption. The overbearing restrictions on alcohol in the United States and the questionable drinking hours in Britain are not the solution; however, the vast availability of alcohol is, in many cases, just plain scary. Most of the 24-hour shops at petrol stations sell alcohol - including vodka - and even have bottle openers on-site. Often, attendants do not think twice before selling an open bottle of beer to someone after filling up his car with petrol. So it is especially remarkable that in Estonia the Statoil petrol station chain finally banned the sale of alcohol at its many locations in May.

There are also some alarming bar locations. For example, in Tallinn, there is a bar called "Parking Lot Bar" on the premises of a car park for commuters working in large office buildings in that area. One can't help but ask: Is that not a blatant challenge to drink-drive restrictions? And which authority issued the license to that business, knowing full well its implications?

A booming business

Beers from Estonia's leading Saku brewery
Saku's star line-up
Needless to say, the amount of local consumption, spurred on by tourist drinking, has created one of the most dynamic industries in all of the region. Pretty much all of the large breweries have been taken over by European giants; for example, Finland's Olvi owns Tartu's A Le Coq, Estonia's second largest brewery, which in turn owns Latvia's Cēsis brewery and Lithuania's Ragutis. A joint venture between Sweden's Pripps and Finland's Hartwall holds a significant stake in several key breweries, including Lithuania's Kalnapilis and Estonia's Saku.

Exports have been growing as well. Estonian beers are often bought in bulk by Finnish tourists alongside their normal hoards of Koff beers. However, alcohol from this part of the world can be found all over the globe; many consumers in Washington, DC, think "sa-KU" beer is Japanese - a case of marketing success and failure rolled into one. Various vodkas from the Baltic countries can be found anywhere from your San Francisco corner grocery store to speciality shops in Chelsea.

Latvia's classic liqueur: Rigas Melnais
Latvia's balsam:
Rīgas Melnais
Though beers and vodkas from the Baltics have managed to find an initial opening into the world market, the region's uniquely local liqueurs have yet to strike it rich. It is still much easier to find Hungarian Unicum around the world than Latvia's bitter national treasure Rīgas Melnais Balzams (Rīga black balsam), Estonia's syrupy Vana Tallinn (Old Tallinn) or the sometimes over-potent versions of the sweet krupnikas from Lithuania. Locals and tourists alike consider these drinks to be either cruel jokes on tourists or wonderful after-dinner drinks - glorified cough syrups or ambrosia in a bottle. Nevertheless, export remains limited.

A sobering future?

Authorities are also fighting back against the free-for-all alcohol trade. In several municipalities in Latvia, sale of alcoholic beverages has been banned after 11pm. The example set by the northern city of Valmiera has become a model that has caught the interest of many members of Parliament. During special events and some notorious holidays (such as the horrific Volbriöö on the evening of 30 April), Tallinn places severe restrictions on sales of alcohol, and open-container laws come into effect. Talk of installing an open-container law in the university town of Tartu naturally caused uproar amongst students. But moves such as banning hard-alcohol sales near bodies of water are positive steps, in light of a record number of drownings in Lithuania in 1999.

However, the noisiest issue involving alcohol remains that of illegal trade. Most of the media coverage of this subject involves complaints of lost excise from the black market and smuggled alcohol (a common problem near border areas, ranging from Valga to Dover) and the methods of dealing with
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this loss. Issues relating to health and social problems connected with alcohol seem to remain secondary. This has long-lasting effects on the budget that far exceed intakes from excise on alcohol; and the spending needed to cover health problems caused by alcohol will be even higher in the future. Most importantly, however, a more pro-active move by governments will save lives.

Drinking will always remain an important part of the culture and social life of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, as it is all over Europe and most of the world. Draconian anti-alcohol policies, like those found in the United States. would not solve the problem; neither can an alcohol culture distilled over generations change to a more benevolent Italian model overnight. However, with a bit more awareness, the people of the Baltics will be able to continue to enjoy their alcohol, while maintaing a healthier, safer and probably happier society.

Mel Huang, 5 June 2000

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Focus: Alcohol
Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Drinks for the Nation

Brian J Požun
Brew Wars

Mel Huang
Boozing in
the Baltics

Václav Bělohradský

Student Essay:
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