When most Americans think of Prohibition, it's the speakeasies and bootleggers of the 1920s that come to mind. Not so in Iceland, where Prohibition is a much more recent memory. It was only 31 years ago that beer stronger than 2.25% ABV was permitted to be sold in the tiny island nation. The beer ban was a lingering holdover from Iceland's own version of Prohibition, which began in 1915 with a total ban on all alcohol, thanks to an active temperance movement. However, the strict measures soon crumbled. Red and rosé wines were permitted in 1922, due to pressure from Spain, which threatened to boycott Iceland's major export, salt cod, unless its wines could be imported. By 1935, two years after America's own teetotal experiment ended, other alcoholic drinks, and even spirits, were allowed. But not full-strength beer.
One of the major reasons was the association of beer with lager-loving Denmark, from which Iceland struggled to gain independence, finally doing so in 1944. Beer was also seen as encouraging alcoholism, as it was cheaper than wine or spirits -- although, somewhat counterintuitively, much weaker. Although some Icelanders resorted to buying beer illicitly, creating their own home brew, or even adding a spirit called brennivin to low- or non-alcoholic beer, it wasn't until the 1970s, when Icelanders began traveling to other parts of Europe more frequently (and bringing back duty-free), that pressure increased for the ban to end. Strong beer was finally legalized on March 1, 1989, in an event commemorated as "Beer Day.
- Icelanders drink an average of 7.1 liters of alcohol a year, significantly less than some other Europeans. Danes average 11.4 liters, Brits 11.6 liters, and Russians 15.1 liters.
- Iceland's Stedji micro-brewery has made headlines on several occasions for brewing beer that is flavored with various whale parts.
- During the early years of the Prohibition period, alcoholic drinks such as wine and cognac -- though never beer -- were sometimes prescribed by doctors to treat medical ailments.