Were the wicked queen from Snow White to turn to her magic mirror and ask, "Who is the happiest of them all?" it's not a stretch to imagine that the mirror would flash on a Nordic person eating cloudberries in a sauna. Scandinavia, though surely not without its problems, just seems to get so much right. Every year one of these Northern European countries tops the World Happiness Report (this year Finland cruised in at #1), driving our outsider's fascination with lifestyle trends like hygge and lagom, along with the Nordic diet in general — and now, kalsarikännit, aka päntsdrunk.
The name says it all, or most of it, anyway; päntsdrunk means to drink an alcoholic beverage in your pants — specifically your underpants, and it's picking up interest in the U.S. There's even a new book out called "Päntsdrunk: Kalsarikanni: The Finnish Path to Relaxation" by Miska Rantanen, indicating that this seemingly self-explanatory term is packed with heritage and nuances, and is rooted in a distinctly Finnish way of interacting with the world and one’s self.
“The original term for [päntsdrunk] is ‘kalsarikännit’, a tongue-in-cheek expression of a Finnish feeling, basically meaning ‘that feeling when you are going to get drunk at home, alone, in your underwear — with no intention of going out,’” says Heikki Väänänen, CEO and founder of the Finnish startup HappyOrNot. “However, nowadays many Finns throw the term around between close friends to hang out casually at home, and enjoy each other’s company in a quiet setting, with a few drinks, and, of course, sauna.”
To Americans, drinking alone can sound, well, lonely (and, as we’ll get to shortly, problematic), but Finns typically don’t tend to see it that way, in part because they’re quite comfortable with solitude.
"Finns, like most Scandinavian cultures, are very good at being by themselves," says Briana Volk, the half-Finnish co-owner of the Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, a Scandinavian-influenced cocktail bar in Maine, and the co-author of the forthcoming book, "Northern Hospitality with The Portland Hunt + Alpine Club: A Celebration of Cocktails, Cooking, and Coming Together." Volk, fluent in Finnish, was raised in Astoria, Oregon where she was part of strong Finnish community.
"Finns are fairly introverted and private,” she tells NBC News BETTER. “We generally don't say hello to one another on the street or on the bus and we're used to enduring long, tough winters — sometimes in total darkness. For these reasons, enjoying a drink or two by yourself is a natural thing."
If you’re drinking alone because you’re depressed or want to forget, that’s not päntsdrunk.
Celebration, relaxation and re-centering are key to päntsdrunk, which is what makes it so radically different from our general understanding of lone alcohol consumption. In America, we've learned that drinking alone usually isn't healthy. Your physician or therapist may bring up the question, “Do you drink alone?” when they’re assessing your mental health. Answering “yes” can be a red flag indicating alcoholic behavior.
Päntsdrunk is indeed drinking alone, but it’s not associated with problem drinking or alcoholism. First of all, as Volk is quick to highlight, it’s not about getting drunk, nor is it about escapism, coping or avoiding people. It’s about indulging in me-time.
“If you’re drinking alone because you’re depressed or want to forget, that’s not päntsdrunk,” says Volk. “Päntsdrunk is more like having a glass of wine or beer and reading a book [in the near-nude] after you’ve just had a long week where you kicked ass. Now you want to celebrate with something delicious, which is why you also wouldn’t go for the cheapest alcohol available, but something good and in moderation.”
Scott Keatley, a registered dietitian based in New York City finds value in päntsdrunk, not only because “there are countless studies showing the benefit of the occasional drink,” but also because it’s a great way to chill out without a care in the world.
"Päntsdrunk is really permission to fully relax, which is why it is so great," Keatley says. "The idea is not to get wasted but to unwind, recharge [and get away] from the hustle and bustle.”
Päntsdrunk can even be a healthier, more moderate way to drink than when you’re out with others.
“In the United States, we generally drink in groups, which is fine but it’s very hard to stop at one or two when someone in your group is ready to go for another,” says Keatley. “Drinking by yourself — in your underwear — frees you from that kind of peer pressure. It lets you drink a little slower, enjoy your thoughts and then quit once you’re done. Much like how we should eat mindfully, we should drink mindfully.”
Volk emphasizes that cheap alcohol or “just whatever is available” is an absolute no-no in the world of päntsdrunk. You want to aim for something high quality and low in alcohol content such as a light cocktail with Finnish vodka, or a top-notch Scandinavian beer of which the region has no shortage.
“I recommend a cocktail that is lower in alcohol, like a spritz or vermouth, so you're not getting drunk, because again, that's not the point,” says Volk, who also shares a couple of her own bar’s Finnish-inspired cocktail recipes.
Whatever you choose to drink, make sure you’re fully appreciating your alone time, preferably by putting all screens away.
“I don't think we as Americans get much alone time,” Volk says. “I’m married with two kids and personally, get very little of it. I also sleep with my phone next to me in case a work email comes in. We're so constantly available that it’s nice to find ways to celebrate the moments when we don’t have to be. I often feel my most creative and centered when by myself,” says Volk. “Why not have a delicious drink to make the most of it?”
Undoubtedly, päntsdrunk is not for everyone. If you have a history of any alcoholic tendencies or concerns about your drinking habits then this activity might best be avoided. But if all is well, then maybe a toast to yourself, by yourself in little more than your birthday suit, is in order.