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Iceland: 27 Years Of Legal Beer

Iceland: 27 Years Of Legal Beer

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published March 1, 2016

On this day in 1989, Iceland took the decision to make beer legal again.

The saga begins in 1908, when a national referendum found the majority of Icelanders favoured putting prohibition in place on all alcoholic beverages, which went into effect in 1915. It was less than smooth sailing from that point onwards.

In 1921, Spain blocked Icelandic fish exports until it agreed to buy Spanish wine, so Iceland capitulated. Then another referendum, in 1935, voted in favour of legalising spirits. This only left the humble beer (or that beer over 2.25%) in the crosshairs of prohibition. Interestingly, pro-temperance Icelanders argued that beer’s lower alcohol percentage would actually lead to more depravity, as it seemed deceptively more “safe” than liquor.

Beer remained the taboo alcoholic beverage for a long time, but legislation can often prove little match for creativity. One way around this law was a concoction known as bjórlíki; literally, “like beer”. The beverage – whose name is a play on smjörlíki, the Icelandic word for margarine – consisted of a low-alcohol pilsner spiked with a shot of hard liquor, usually vodka. You can probably get this served to you in a modern Icelandic bar, if you want a taste of late 20th century Icelandic history.

As more Icelanders traveled abroad and tried more beers, numerous legislative attempts were made to legalise beer, but these were hotly contested. Beer-loving political forces fought on, however, and on March 11, 1988, parliament voted in favour of legalising beer again. This went into effect on March 1, the following year.

Today, Beer Day, as the holiday is known, is celebrated by many Icelanders. One way you can celebrate it tonight is as at the Bryggjan Brugghús brewery, with an all-night happy hour and live bluegrass music. Admission is totally free.


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