Iceland: 30 Years Of Legal Beer - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Iceland: 30 Years Of Legal Beer

Published March 4, 2019

Andie Fontaine
Photos by
Art Bicnick

Last Friday, Icelanders celebrated Beer Day, which marks the anniversary of Iceland making beer legal again—as it has been for 30 years now.

The history of alcohol prohibition in Iceland is a curious one, and went through many permutations. It started in 1915 as a blanket ban on all alcoholic beverages, but this would be modified due to lobbying from an unlikely source: Spain. The Spanish had a vested interest in their wines being exported to and sold in Iceland; so much so that they refused to import Icelandic fish unless Iceland amended their alcohol laws to allow the sale of wine in 1921.

Things would take a turn for the weird in 1935, when the law was amended further to allow the sale of strong spirits, while maintaining the ban on any beer with an alcohol content greater than 2.25%—a move largely made to appeal to the temperance lobby in Iceland.

There are numerous reasons why hard liquor was legalised while beer remained illegal. Teetotallers believed that young people were more keen on beer than spirits, and that beer being cheaper would make its drinking more widespread.

To combat this, enterprising Icelanders got creative with the invention of bjórlíki, a portmanteau of the words for beer (bjór) and margarine (smjörlíki). A traditional serving of bjórlíki entailed an almost full serving of the 2.25% near-beer, with a shot of hard liquor, typically vodka, added to the mix. The government tried to fight back, with the Ministry Justice prohibiting bars from serving bjórlíki in 1985.

Ultimately, beer prohibition proved to be a futile exercise, and the ban was lifted on March 1 of 1989. Today, virtually all alcoholic beverages are legal in Iceland, so long as they abide government labelling laws—which some imports have run afoul of.

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