The weird story of why beer was illegal in Iceland until 1989?

As a part of an international trend, an alcohol prohibition was implemented in Iceland in 1915, after an overwhelming support to the ban in a referendum in 1908. 73% of voters shoved up for the referendum and 60,1% of them said yes to the ban. To put it into perspective, the famous prohibition in the United States started three years later in 1920. It lasted until 1933. In that period, many other countries also had an alcohol prohibition, including Canada, Finland, Norway and the Faroe Islands.

From 1915 it was illegal to produce, distribute, sell and consume any alcoholic beverages in Iceland. In the beginning the public support was high. The biggest force behind the ban was the extremely strong icelandic branch of The International Organisation of Good Templars (IOGT), an organisation that fought against the abuse, and the use of alcohol. However, as time went by, the prohibition started hurting Iceland’s business interests. Especially the export of salted cod “Bacalao” to Southern Europe. It was one of the most important export products at the time. 

The fishing industry as a whole, and especially few selected individuals within it with strong political influence fought against the alcoholic ban in Iceland from day one. Numerous articles were written about the culture of wine and the joy of life that could be experienced with a moderate alcohol consumption. And as this was in the period of Iceland’s independence movement (Iceland gained full independence in 1944) people also used patriotic arguments against the alcoholic ban. To be fair, almost identical arguments were used for the ban. 

Historically, Iceland was more or less settled by viking from Scandinavia and their slaves from the scottish Isles. Ale (öl) was the drink of choice in that period and most likely dark ale made from barley was the most common type. But it is also likely that some other types were drunk, such as white ale from wheat. However, it is difficult to say exactly because people didn’t bother to write down recipes. Anyways, corn did not grow well in iceland, especially after the weather became cooler in the 13th century so beer became one of the biggest imports. When Icelanders were introduced to hard lickers in the 16th and 17th century, they mostly turned away from beer import because shipping and handling of hard licker was much easier. In 1630 the import of beer was 1.600 barrels and the import of hard liquor was 150 barrels. About 150 years later this had turned around. In 1779 the import of beer was 104 barrels but the import of hard liquor was 1.160 barrels. 

Back to modern times. After seven years of prohibition the government decided to allow the import and sales of wine. This happened after the Spanish government threatened to put an import ban on Icelandc “Bacalao” into Spain if the icelanders did not open their country to spanish wines. That threat was a direct result of a PR and lobby campaign by the Icelandic fisheries moguls and their Spanish partners. It is a clear example of how a communication of sorts directly influenced what sort of alcoholic beverages were available to the Icelandic public. Hard liquor and beer was still illegal. The prohibition in Iceland in the early 20th century led to smuggling, illegal bars and moonshining. Many of the same thing happened in Finland and later in the United States.

After the crack that was made in the prohibition wall with the exceptions for the Spanis wines in 1922 the fight about the continuing ban got even harder. By 1933 there was another referendum and 45% of voters showed up. 42,3% wanted to keep the ban in place but 57,7% wanted to lift it. After months of negotiation between the government, merchants and the fishing industry on one side of the table and the Good Templars (IOGT) on the other side, agreement was reached. By 1935 the Icelandic alcoholic prohibition was abolished – almost. Beer was still illegal.  

Simultaneously to the lift of the ban of import, sales and consumption of wine in 1922, the icelandic government decided to start an alcohol retail monopolie. The company started producing their own distilled hard liquor in 1935. The most commonly known brand was Brennivín or Black Death, an Icelandic version of the Scandinavian snaps Akvavit, made from fermented potatoes and flavored with caraway seeds. 1932 the tobacco monopoly was funded but the two were merged in 1961 under the name of the Icelandic Alcohol and Tobacco Retail Monopoly (ÁTVR). In 1992 the company sold all their brands and equipment to a private company and stopped being a production company and focused solely one the retail of alcohol.

During all this beer was still illegal in Iceland. In the neighboring countries the consumption of beer was increasing and people were drinking less and less hard liquor. Lots of free trade thinking associations and individuals pointed out how strange and out of time the beer ban was in the 1980s. Members of parliament put forward numerous bills about allowing beer and finally in 1988 the lawmakers passed one that allowed the brewing, selling and consuming of beer. The official beer legalisation date was the 1st of mars 1989. Now beer counts for about 17 million out of 22 million litres of sold alcohol in iceland. About three quarters of that is Icelandic beers and local breweries are now around 30. Few are big industrial companies but most of them making craft beers. Over one hundred different varieties.

Furthermore, any and all advertising of alcohol has been illegal since 1928 and that is still the case according to the 20th article of the Icelandic alcoholic law nr. 75/1998. This ban has made all marketing and discussion about alcohol and wines in Iceland very limited and it always needs to be disguised as food communication or something else. 

Local hard liquor has also been on the rise. Among them pretty good gins, vodkas and whiskeys. And in recent years, following a huge tourist boom, a new kind of alcoholic beverages has also been seen in Iceland. Those are alcoholic souvenirs, such as birch and herb snaps. And the general discussion about these products are changing. More and more people are talking about new approach. Take the alcoholic souvenirs out of the monopoly, people say,  and start selling them in the regular souvenir shops. It will be interesting to see in the coming years if that pressure by communication will change the mind of the lawmakers as it did so many times in the past.