The ‘Whiskey War’ of Hans Island

Dec 13, 2016 1 comments

In the remote north of the Atlantic Ocean, right on the edge of the freezing waters of the Arctic Ocean, lies a tiny speck of an island. Named after a 19th century Greenlandic Arctic traveller, the half-square-mile Hans Island is as barren as any uninhabited island could ever be —a flat, exposed rocky knoll with no vegetation and no apparent natural resources. Yet, this nondescript piece of rock has been at the center of a territorial dispute between Canada and Denmark that has been raging for nearly half a century.

Hans Island lies in the middle of the Nares Strait, a 22-mile-wide channel of water that separates Canada from Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark. International law dictates that all countries have the right to claim territory within 12 miles of their shore. This puts Hans Island in both Danish and Canadian waters.


Hans Island as seen from the air, with Ellesmere Island in the background. Photo credit: Toubletap/Wikimedia

The territorial dispute rose in 1973 when both countries were drawing up their maritime boundary. At that time, no agreement could be reached between the two governments, and so the issue was put off for later. The dispute began in earnest in 1984 when during a visit to the island the Danish Minister for Greenland planted the national flag and left a message saying “Welcome to the Danish island” along with a bottle of brandy. When Canada learned about it, they dispatched a troop to the island to replace the Danish flag with a Canadian flag and the bottle of Danish schnapps with Canadian whiskey.

And a light-hearted ‘whiskey war’ was born. For decades now, Canadian and Danish troops alternately visit the island to change flags and leave a bottle of liquor. In 2005, Canadians upped the antic by installing a metal plaque on the island. The Danish didn’t reciprocate, however, their Foreign Minister stated that to “go ashore tearing down [the Canadian] flag and replacing it with a new one…would be a somewhat childish [behaviour] between two NATO allies.”

As of 2016, the border issue is yet to be resolved.

Update (16 June 2022): Canada and Denmark have reached a settlement on the border dispute over Hans Island on June 2022. Under the agreement, a border will be drawn across the island, dividing it between the Canadian territory of Nunavut and the semi-autonomous Danish territory of Greenland.



Danish soldiers on Hans Island in 2002. Photo credit: Royal Danish Navy


The plaque left by Canadian Forces personnel on Hans Island in 2005. 


Canadian Forces personnel raise Canada's flag on Hans Island in 2005.

Sources: NY Times / Wikipedia


  1. The Honorable Anders Samuelson
    Minister for Foreign Affaurs
    Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark
    Asiatisk Plads 2
    DK-1448 Copenhagen
    With CC to The Honorable Chrystia Freeland, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Global Affairs Canada, Lester B. Pearson Building 125 Sussex Drive, Ottawa ON K1A 0G2, CANADA

    Dear Minister Samuelson,
    Congratulations on Denmark being named #1 in the world on Happiness index!

    I hope some Jack Daniels Tennessee whisky will add some happiness to your Canada vs Denmark island dispute.

    The 'whiskey war' was initiated in 1984, when the Danish minister for Greenland landed on the island leaving a bottle of schnapps and a sign proclaiming “Welcome to the Danish Island.”
    Peter Takso Jensen, head of international law department of the Danish Foreign Ministry, noted that “when Danish military go there, they leave a bottle of schnapps. And when Canadian military forces come there, they leave a bottle of Canadian Club and a sign saying 'Welcome to Canada'”
    Herewith is the text of the sovereignty claim made for Hans Island on behalf of the United States as per the US Congress 1856 Guano Islands Act:

    I, Stan Vaughan, a citizen of the United States, having previously given notice by affidavit, to the Department of State, of discovered deposits of guano, in accordance with US Code Title 48, Chapter 8, section 1411, on Hans Island, discovered July 1853 by Elisha Kent Kane of the United States ship Advance of 2nd Grinnell Expedition, with discovery renewed and reconfirmed by Charles Francis Hall in the United States ship Polaris August 29, 1871 and noting that said islands are not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and taking peaceable possession thereof, and with intent of continuous occupation, and further ask the President to consider such as appertaining to the United States.
    Further, in accordance with Title 48, Chapter 8, section 1412, having found as soon as practible, gave notice by affidavit, to the Department of State, of such island described as Hans Island, at approximate latitude of 80 degrees 39’41 minutes North and longitude of 66 degrees and 27’41 minutes West thereof, as near as may be, and showing that said islands were not at the time of discovery thereof, in the possession or occupation of any other government or of the citizens of any other government before the same and request that shall be now considered as appertaining to the United States.
    FILED WITH THE United States State Department
    This claim should also help strengthen United States claim to Northwest Passage navigation rights as well.

    A United States flag and some Tennessee Jack Daniels whisky have been placed on the island, while awaiting President Trump’s executive order proclaiming Hans Island as territory appertaining now to the United States.


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