Total And Partial Prohibition
Every March 1, Icelanders celebrate the legalization of beer in their country with National Beer Day.
Like the United States, Iceland instituted a nationwide ban on alcoholic beverages at the beginning of the twentieth century. Unlike the United States, however, it kept its ban of beer on the books all the way until 1989. This means unrestricted beer drinking in Iceland is only turning 24 this year!
While teetotalers succeeded in making alcoholic drinks illegal in Iceland in 1915, total prohibition of alcohol reigned in Iceland only until 1922, when Spain refused to buy Icelandic fish (the island’s main export) until the country legalized the importation of Spanish wine.
A Fortunate Loophole
In 1935, spirits were legalized, but abstinence groups succeeded in maintaining the prohibition on beer, arguing that its lower price would enable more public drunkenness.
Resourceful Icelanders, however, managed to find a loophole. So-called “small beer” with an alcohol content under 2.25% remained legal throughout prohibition. After 1935, a popular drink was “bjorliki” — small beer fortified with a shot of whiskey or vodka.
Periodic objections were raised to the beer ban during the intervening decades, but without a strong lobbying effort, none won out against the small but vocal temperance movement. When beer was finally legalized in 1989, it was on economic grounds; Prime Minister Steingrimur Hermansson argued that the taxes raised from beer sales could significantly reduce the country’s budget deficit.
Today, beer is by far the most popular alcoholic beverage in Iceland. Lager-style macrobrews control most of the market, but a few native microbreweries have begun experimenting with stouts, IPAs and other styles.