Alcohol in Iceland

Administrator 24 Jan 2013

Iceland has some pretty weird laws about alcohol. Here we give you the quick low-down you're going to need to navigate the boozy maze.

You'll notice we have all sorts of alcoholic drinks for sale in bars, restaurants and cafés with people enjoying them both responsibly and otherwise. So far, so normal. But you'll notice there is none whatsoever in the supermarkets…

Iceland, like the USA, had total prohibition on alcohol. The public voted to ban all alcohol in 1908 and a full seven years later the law came into effect, in 1915. But it lasted only six years. Thanks to the Spanish.

You see, they were upset that Icelanders wanted to sell them lots of fish but would not buy any of their (lovely) wine, and so they proposed a boycott. Iceland responded by legalising wine.

Then, 20 years after the initial ban, hard spirits were re-legalised in 1935 - again following a referendum. But (here's the mind boggling bit) beer over 2.25% remained illegal. This was apparently a concession to the temperance movement who believed that beer's lower price would make it a bigger social problem.

Beer would remain illegal until 1st March 1989 and the ridiculousness of the situation was no better illustrated than by the many bars offering “fake-real” beer by mixing legal vodka with legal 2.25% strength beer. That is until this too was banned in 1985 and support for Real Beer ballooned still further.

Even to this day, you won't find anything stronger than 2.25% in any shop except the state-run chain Vínbúðin (meaning the wine shop). Lingering alcohol neuroses on the political front mean these shops are deliberately few and far between, have very restrictive opening hours and are not permitted to run special offers. On the plus side, you can have any of their products delivered to any of their branches at no extra cost. This means you can order whatever you like from their huge online selection, even if you live (or are staying) in a tiny village with a minuscule wine shop.

Although things have changed immensely in recent years, the peculiar Icelandic attitude to alcohol has led to the legendary weekend all-night partying on the one side and, on the other, the assumption that anyone drinking anything at all for the rest of the week must be an alcoholic. As we say, this is changing and ordering a glass of Chardonnay with your lunch is now unlikely to earn you the reproachful stares and tutting it once would have.

Another thing that has changed immensely is the price tourists can expect to pay. Due to the mega dip the Icelandic currency took in 2008/9, drinking is affordable again. Taking London as an example, back when a pint used to cost about two pounds in London, they used to cost five or six in Iceland (and that's for a half litre compared to London's 568ml glasses). These days, on the other hand, they cost three pounds minimum in London and only four to five in Iceland. The fine array of happy hours helps still further (check out the Reykjavík Appy Hour smart phone app)!

Picture courtesy of Nightlife Friend