21 September 2006

Wasting away again in irantilainen viskiville

I’ve found that it really helps to end a hard day with a wee dram. “Wee dram” may be a little misleading, actually, since that conjures up images of the Hebrides and the peaty essence of single malts. As I am more patriot than connoisseur, Kentucky bourbon is my nightcap of choice—Makers Mark, if it’s on the shelf. Come to think of it, I probably shouldn’t have written “hard day,” either. Or “end,” for that matter, since in mid-September the sun acts like it’s going to set at around 5:30, but then just scuds along the horizon for another three hours or so.

Anyway, Finland is beer country. You can buy any brand that grabs your fancy at a “convenience” store. Young men careen around town cradling their ten-packs of Karhu or Koff. But if you want the fruit of the vine, or any other kind of spirit, you have to go to an emporium called “Alko.”

That—the unvarnished Finnish truth in advertising—is of course a deterrent in itself. Americans would call it a party store or a package store to make themselves feel better about it, but the Finns will eschew the euphemism every time. You want a drink, buddy? Get thee to an Alko. It would appear to be a state-owned, or at least a state-chartered, monopoly. Prices are pretty much off the charts. I’m told people in Helsinki buy their booze in Estonia.

Finding your friendly neighborhood Alko is challenge number one. I have a feeling many of the outlets are out in the ‘burbs, snuggled up against the big-box grocery stores. But those of us who depend on two-wheelers or the tedious process of putting one foot before the other must look in the town center, keskusta. Sure enough, there is one next door to Stockmann, the Center of the Ouluniverse.

It’s an interesting place. For one thing, there are formidable looking devices that recycle cans and glass bottles. I’ve seen them in grocery stores as well. You just stick your recyclables in the slot, and the machine does the rest. With the cans, you hear a satisfying crunch straightaway. You press a button when you’re finished, and the machine gives you a bill of credit that you take to the kassa. Then there’s the vodka aisle. There seem to be as many varieties of vodka as there are Sámi words for reindeer poop. Most of the wine is from France, with unfamiliar labels. And expensive. I head for the whiskey department.

Here, price proves decisive. Virtually all the options come in 700-centiliter bottles, so at least it’s easy to compare. No Maker’s Mark, of course, but they do stock Jack Daniels. Unfortunately, he sells for 25 euro. The cash register in my head counters with Jim Beam, at 21. The rotgut called Kentucky Gentleman is only 15 euro, but you have to draw the line somewhere. There is, it turns out, a limit to my patriotism. For “only” 20 euro, I leave with a very decent bottle of Bushmill’s. I suppose the relative affordability of Irish whiskey—they call it irlantilainen viski here—has something to do with Finland’s membership in the EU.

Whatever. The important thing is that I am now prepared for the dread December day when the sun disappears over the yardarm for good in the middle of the afternoon. They say it sneaks up on you, it does. When that moment arrives, I will hoist a celebratory noggin of Bushmill’s and wait for someone to turn on the northern lights. Life is good.