Did you know that once upon a time beer was banned in Iceland? This small Nordic country in the North Atlantic had its own version of Prohibition. Except this one lasted until 1989. So what’s the story there? Why was beer banned in Iceland, and how did this embargo on ale thankfully end? Grab a frozen mug of some tasty drops, get comfortable, and prepare to learn how Iceland survived this tragic period in the history of alcohol on the island.
Why Would Anyone Ban Beer?
That is a great question; it’s a crazy thing to do and makes absolutely no sense. Wine, beer, liquor, and other alcoholic beverages have been around for thousands of years. People enjoy imbibing them and just drinking all around. Some countries, like the United States and several in Europe, attempted to ban alcohol at one point or another. But as we’ve all seen, it doesn’t really work. People always found a way around it.
Even though Prohibition was introduced around the same time in both the United States and Iceland, our reasons were somewhat different. In the US, it was part of the temperance movement and an attempt to solve societal problems and have citizens be more moral. Iceland’s reasons for outlawing barley-and-hops-based drinks had more to do with political reasons and national pride, but there were also elements of the temperance movement involved.
For many years, Iceland had been under the rule of the crown of Denmark. While we had been granted home rule in the late 1800s, by the early 1900s we were pushing for full independence. Beer was associated with the Danish way of life, so in essence, it was considered bad. As a way to distance ourselves from Denmark, Icelanders decided to stop drinking beer.
Beer and Alcohol Outlawed
The temperance movement, combined with the independence movement culminated in a complete and total ban on all alcohol in 1915. 60% of the population voted for it, and it was actually seen in a positive light by most of the population at the time. And even though women couldn’t vote at the time, they supported the measure as well.
Where There’s A Will, There’s A Way
Because human nature is what it is, this strict Prohibition didn’t last very long. Icelanders began brewing fermented drinks at home and even smuggling liquor into the country. A big blow to the ban came when Spain put its foot down and said: “If you don’t import our wine, we’re going to stop importing your salted cod”. This was Iceland’s most profitable export at the time, so this step would have been a major hit to the economy.
People are quick to react when you hit them where it hurts: in the pocketbook. Iceland decided that it would be in its best economic interests to continue trade with the Iberian peninsula, which consumes a lot of cod. So in 1922, they legalized the import of red wines and rosé from Spain and Portugal.
The Slow Fade
More chinks in the armor of Prohibition formed as support faded slowly over time. Eventually, in 1933, Icelanders voted again and decided that they did actually want to have alcohol in their country. But even then, you could still not buy beer that had more than 2.25% alcohol. Just for reference, an average beer has about 4.5% alcohol, so in effect, beer was still outlawed.
They did this because they did not want alcohol abuse to increase significantly and feared that easy access to cheap liquor would do just that. Beer was also still closely associated with Denmark.
Over time people did start to turn to alternatives to beer such as whale beer (made from whale parts) and Brennivin (a schnapps called “black death” in Iceland).
Warming Up To Beer
With the rise of Icelandic tourists heading abroad for their holidays in the 1970s, they would see people consuming beer in bars and pubs in other countries and think “why not us”? A law also changed in 1980 when it was seen as unfair that only tourists and those in the aviation industry could bring in six liters of beer into the country.
Beer Day in Iceland
By the 1980s, support had risen for making beer fully legal. On March 1st, 1989, the votes came, and the ban on beer was fully repealed. This momentous day has been celebrated ever since as “Beer Day” in Iceland.
Beer Banned in Iceland: What’s The Story?
As you can see, Iceland’s history isn’t all Vikings and volcanoes. There are some other interesting tidbits like the fact that beer was banned for nearly 75 years. Can you imagine? But we Icelanders found a way to reverse course, and now you can benefit from. Instead of forcing down shots of Brennevin at a bar on Laugavegur street, you can enjoy a nice beer as you float in the Blue Lagoon. And what’s better than that?