Sun, Sep 18, 2016 - Page 15 News List

Murree with a curry:
Pakistani alcohol booms

While the Islamic republic officially has only 3 million adults who can buy alcohol, its three breweries are flourishing, led by Murree, with annual growth of 15 to 20 percent

By Caroline Nelly Perrot  /  AFP, RAWALPINDI, Pakistan,

A worker marks whisky barrels in the maturation cellar of the Muree Brewery in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on June 28.

Photo: AFP

At Murree Brewery, home of Pakistan’s national lager, vintage copper boilers belch odorous fumes as they churn out 10 million liters of beer each year.

Hundreds of tonnes of gin and whisky are stored in climate-conditioned cellars, shielded from the pummelling sun.

Whether it is beer produced by the crateful in Murree’s venerable red brick brewery — opposite the powerful army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi — or wine discreetly fermented in a bedroom, alcohol sales are booming in “teetotalitarian” Pakistan.

Strangers to the Islamic republic may be surprised that the country industriously — and at Murree openly — produces such quantities of booze, despite it being forbidden to 97 percent of the population.

However, although Pakistani Muslims are banned from drinking alcohol, topers take advantage of the fact that the country’s minorities, mainly Hindus and Christians, face no such prohibition, and often snaffle up their quota.

And so, although officially only 3 million adults can buy alcohol, the nation’s three breweries must work hard to please its enthusiastic tipplers.

Murree produces two cask-aged whiskies and a gin dyed an electric blue — not coincidentally exactly the shade of bottles containing its more internationally renowned counterpart, Bombay Sapphire. Founded by the British in 1860 and now Parsee-owned, Murree’s brewery has been burnt down by Muslim protesters, temporarily shut down in an Islamist purge and continues to survive prohibition, which was imposed in the 1970s.

Far from bowed, it flourishes as one of Pakistan’s most successful companies, with an annual growth of between 15 and 20 percent, a rarity in a country regularly wracked by violence.

“There is no risk as such, because we are a very, very legal entity — one of the biggest taxpayers in this country,” Murree executive Major Sabih-ur-Rehman said.

“It is in the interest of everybody that the Murree brewery as a legal business should flourish and continue,” he said.

With cans priced at 300 rupees (US$3) on the legal market in a country where the average salary is 13,000 rupees, the brewery caters mainly to a Muslim elite willing to break the rules.

Tahir Ahmed, a therapist specializing in addiction, who is worried about the rise in alcoholism, says that off-license stores “sell the booze to the people who can afford it, and only Muslims can.”

“The middle class is steeped in Islamic morality, but the upper class are getting richer, and it is a new norm that if you invite someone for dinner you will be serving alcohol. It is socially expected,” he said.

Well stocked bars at birthday parties, dinners awash with Italian wines and discreet “car-bars” in the parking lots of wedding halls are supplied by a thriving illegal market that also relies on vast foreign imports.

“The main source of smuggling is through Dubai on launches crossing the sea,” a customs official who did not wish to be named said.

Smugglers are able to bring in entire containers by paying off officials, while sometimes unscrupulous diplomats sell a part of their legal quota to bootleggers.

An Asian embassy in Islamabad once ran its own wine shop, according to former customers.

Buying on the blackmarket raises prices — a bottle of Murree gin can costUS$20 (more than double its official cost), even when bootleggers dilute the spirit. An ordinary bottle of table wine starts at US$40.

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