Prohibition in Iceland

Green brennivín bottle with black labelAs Gunnar waited for the kettle to boil, his fingers danced around the neck of the bottle. His muscles were stiff from the cold, but soon they wouldn’t be. His mood would improve, he’d find motivation to work, he’d relax. Gunnar neither understood nor approved of the prohibition. If other people were happy to walk around cold, sore, and stressed out, good for them, he often said to Ragnar. The dog didn’t disagree.

(Storytellers)

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In the early 20th century the government of Iceland decided that the best way to ensure its citizens’ happiness was to introduce prohibition.

It wasn’t the sinful effect of alcohol on the parishioners’ spirits that caused the decision. The ban was motivated by politics. At the time, Iceland was still struggling to achieve independence from Denmark, where the drink of choice was beer. The Danes drank up to eight times more alcohol per person on a yearly basis than Icelanders at the time (source: Stefan Palsson, Beer: Around the World in 120 Pints). Drinking started being viewed as unpatriotic and so a referendum took place in 1908, banning all sorts of alcohol effective from January 1, 1915.

This went exactly as well as prohibition always tends to.

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In Storytellers Gunnar regularly visits his doctor for special prescriptions. As someone diagnosed with lung problems, he receives a bottle of whisky every week. Had he been troubled by his bad nerves, the doctor would have prescribed him wine, and if the problems were related to his heart, the best medicine would have been cognac. Iceland’s head doctor only put his foot down when it came to beer, the drink of traitors, declared to be unfit as medicine for any ailments. Those who were not lucky enough to have lung or heart problems found other constructive ways to avoid the ban on alcohol sales – for instance, painters suddenly needed lots and lots of spirits to clean their brushes.

Since a bottle of whisky per week is not enough to help with all of Gunnar’s health problems, he also produces moonshine. He honestly perceives it as being medicinal, the idea of calling it “alcohol” is repulsive to him. After all, it is the doctor who supplies him with the whisky, how could a mere blacksmith disagree with modern science? It is not his fault that he can’t afford larger doses of the medication, therefore he produces his own – the things we do for our health! Gunnar believes himself to be the best proof that the medicine works… until it doesn’t work that well anymore, but this article is not a summary of Storytellers.

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The first modification to the new law was hastily introduced in 1921. The First World War, known in Iceland as The Great War, brought the country its first ever economic boom. Since the other countries were busy fighting, Iceland’s fish and sheep were suddenly in great demand. But once the war ended, so did the prosperity, and the economy nosedived within the first months of 1920. It was at this point that Spain announced it would stop buying Iceland’s main export, cod, unless Iceland returned to importing Spanish wines. Refusing this “offer” would have been a suicidal move, and the Icelandic parliament briskly decided that as good as the prohibition was for the country, there was nothing wrong with a bit of wine every now and then.

The second change took place in 1935, when a national referendum enabled the sale and purchase of strong liquor. Interestingly, the “temperance lobby” didn’t find this problematic, but they demanded that beer remain illegal. Not due to its Danish connotations, even though Iceland still continued its struggle for full independence (finally achieved in June 1944), but because “beer would lead to more depravity, because it was cheaper than spirits” (Source: Insight Guides, Jane Simmonds, Tom Le Bas, Brian Bell, Iceland,1999). Only beer with alcohol content below 2.25% was permitted. This led to the invention of “ghost beer” which was enhanced with brennivín, a potato-based vodka. As Unnar Rafn Ingvarsson, an Icelandic historian, remarked – the ghost beer was “interesting and totally disgusting”.

During the next 54 years, multiple attempts were made to legalise beer again. In 1965, ship and airline crews received permission to bring beer into the country. Fourteen years later, Davið Scheving Thorsteinsson, a businessman, was fined for attempting to bring a six-pack into the country. He refused to pay the fine and contested the rule on the grounds of unequal treatment under the law. The case received support from parliament member Sighvatur Björgvinsson, and a year later a law was passed allowing all travellers to purchase beer at duty-free stores. Soon buying a crate of beer at the airport became almost obligatory. It wasn’t so much about the beer itself – some of them disliked the drink and distributed it among friends and relatives – it was about making a point. The nation that fought so hard for its independence was not going to follow the rules obediently, whether they came from Denmark or the temperance lobby.

The last drop (sorry) was the ban on ghost beer, introduced in 1985. Within two years, approximately 60% of Icelanders were in support of legalising beer sales, which caused Jón Magnusson of the Independence Party to remark that “beer is being consumed in Iceland, why should the state not get its piece of the cake in the form of taxes and so on?” On March 1, 1989 beer was made fully legal in Iceland, dismantling the remaining bits of prohibition. 

Ever since, March 1st is celebrated yearly as “Beer Day”, which is essentially a pub crawl. You would expect this to be a time when you don’t want to be roaming the streets of Reykjavík or Akureyri unless you’re celebrating the anniversary yourself. That was what I expected, having seen the streets of Amsterdam on the King’s Day. But there are few that actually “celebrate” the day with too much patriotic enthusiasm. Auður Osp of the I Heart Reykjavík blog remarked: “I will go out for a beer myself to celebrate, possibly to one of the craft beer bars to try something new.”

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Even today, every liquor store in the country, Vínbúð, is ran by the government, and the liquor – as in any sort of alcoholic drink stronger than 2.25% – is taxed based on alcohol content. As of March 1, 2019, there are 51 Vínbúðin (plural form of “Vínbúð” – BL) in the country, at least twelve of which are situated in Reykjavík. The production of landi – moonshine – is legal for personal consumption and, had it been legal to sell it, would have been considered a booming business. In 2015, a bill sponsored by Vilhjálmur Árnason of the Independence Party argued that the government’s monopoly needed to end, as it was turning young people towards drug use. Vilhjálmur’s bill was shot down as two-thirds of the country voted against it. Its opponents believed that the way to reduce drug consumption was by raising prices on alcohol even further and making the laws stricter. Because this method had worked so well in the past…

These days, brennivín – which can be translated as “burning wine” and is known more widely as “the black death” – is mostly consumed by tourists, or exceptionally patriotic Icelanders who want to impress those tourists. It has retained its plain and “terrifying” black label, which was supposed to scare people off buying the liquor. Nowadays, it’s brennivín’s best selling point. As long as it’s known as “the black death” and testosterone exists, it doesn’t matter how awful it tastes.

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Icelanders’ average alcohol consumption per capita remains lower than that of many countries. According to a survey conducted in 2014, the amount of pure alcohol consumed annually by a person over 15 years old is 7.1 litres, compared with 11.4 (Denmark), 11.6 (United Kingdom), 12.2 (France), and 15.1 (Russia, but it’s quite unfair to compare most countries’ alcohol consumption with that in Russia). Nevertheless, according to an uncredited article on the Australian SBS News website, alcohol abuse is still an issue in Iceland and 1 out of 10 Icelandic males aged 15+ have been to rehab at least once in their lifetime. The 7.1 litres per person figure is misleading, as many people don’t drink at all due to the placement of the Vínbúðin – but also determining the amount of alcohol in the moonshine is not an easy task even before you start tasting your produce.

Not wanting to finish on such a negative note, let’s describe the crazy bachanalia that took place when the beer ban was lifted: while all four bars in Reykjavík were packed with overjoyed beer drinkers, the population, which at the time numbered 260,000, purchased a grand total of 340,000 cans of beer. My home country Poland wishes it had an alcohol problem like that. In Iceland, approximately 20% of the population drinks once (or more) a week, whereas in the UK the number is 52.5%. A pint of beer in Reykjavík will cost you between 900-1500 krónur (6.65-11.09 euro), but fear not! You may literally bathe in beer when you visit the Beer Spa in Árskógssandur. It has a wonderful effect on both the condition of your skin and your general health. It also doesn’t contain any alcohol.

 

Sources:

https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-31622038

https://adventures.is/blog/prices-in-iceland/

https://www.cntraveler.com/stories/2016-07-05/icelands-relationship-with-alcohol-its-complicated

https://statice.is/publications/news-archive/health/alcohol-consumption-in-iceland/

https://www.sbs.com.au/news/iceland-marks-30-years-of-lifting-beer-ban

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_in_Iceland

https://www.northiceland.is/en/what-to-see-do/service/the-beer-spa

https://www.icelandreview.com/news/iceland-celebrates-thirty-years-of-legal-beer/

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