STORIES

The End of Iceland's Beer Prohibition Turns 20

By David Jenison on March 1, 2018

Nineteen years ago today, Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" topped the Hot 100 charts, The Cosby Show ruled the television ratings and comedic movie star Tom Hanks owned the box office with The 'Burbs. While it might not have been the brightest day for American entertainment, something far more significant happened across the Atlantic: Iceland ended its 74-year-old beer prohibition. 

That's right, Icelanders had to endure "straight up, now tell me, do you really wanna love me forever, oh, oh, or am I caught in hit and run?" without the ear-numbing goodness of a dark lager. Hell, I had to pound two shots of tequila just to copy/paste those lyrics. 

In 1908, the citizens of Iceland voted to prohibit all alcohol, which took effect in 1915. Spain used its import-buying muscle to end wine prohibition in 1921, and spirit prohibition ended in 1935, but beer remained an illegal beverage for another 54 years. In 1985, the government even prohibited bars from using non-alcoholic beer as a mixer for spirits because it too closely imitated real beer. 

The argument in favor of prohibition: Beer leads to more depravity because it's cheaper than wine and spirits. Naturally, a black market for beer quickly emerged. 

Politics played a major role in beer prohibition. As noted by the BBC, "Iceland was engaged in a struggle for independence from Denmark at the time, and Icelanders strongly associated beer with Danish lifestyles." Cannabis prohibitionists used a similar tactic by associating "marijuana" with the flood of Mexican immigrants in the early 1900s. In both cases, the basis for prohibition involved some measure of racism. 

In 1989, Parliament ended beer prohibition on a 13-to-eight vote (yes, it was that close), and Iceland now celebrates the end of prohibition each year on March 1. The wild celebration—at a particularly chilly time of year—is appropriately called Bjórdagur, or Beer Day. The celebration is particularly festive in the capital, Reykjavík, where participants can expect big parties and pub crawls. 

What effect did beer prohibition ultimately have? Ironically (or not), beer became the most-consumed alcoholic beverage in Iceland. In terms of pure alcohol content,beer makes up 62 percent of Icelandic consumption, topping such beer-guzzling countries as Germany (54 percent), Czech Republic (54 percent), United States (50 percent) and, most comically, Denmark (38 percent). 

For those thinking about travel plans overseas, the Northern Lights are often still visible in March, which makes Beer Day a good time to visit the Viking nation. Keep an eye out for local brews like Kaldi Black IPA, Einstök White Ale and the power-packed Garún No. 19 with 11.5 alcohol by volume. Skál!

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