Pakistan's alcohol trade booming legally and illegally

A Pakistani resident keeping bottles of homemade whisky out of sight, under a table at his home in Islamabad.
A Pakistani resident keeping bottles of homemade whisky out of sight, under a table at his home in Islamabad.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

RAWALPINDI (Pakistan) • At Murree Brewery, home of Pakistan's national lager, vintage copper boilers belch odorous fumes as they churn out 10 million litres of beer each year.

Hundreds of tonnes of gin and whisky are also stored in climate- conditioned cellars.

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 booze, despite it being forbidden to 97 per cent of the population.

But although Pakistani Muslims are banned from drinking alcohol, the country's minorities - three million adult Hindus and Christians - face no such prohibition.

Murree produces two cask-aged whiskies and a gin dyed an electric blue - not coincidentally the shade of its internationally renowned counterpart, Bombay Sapphire.

Founded by the British in 1860 and now Parsee-owned, Murree 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.

It is one of Pakistan's most successful companies, with an annual growth of between 15 to 20 per cent.

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

Cans of beer are priced at 300 rupees (S$6) on the legal market in a country where the average salary is 13,000 rupees.

The brewery also caters to a Muslim elite willing to break the rules.

Mr Tahir Ahmed, a therapist specialising in addiction, says that off-licence 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 is getting richer and it is a new norm that if you invite someone for dinner, you will be serving alcohol."

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 black market.

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

Sometimes, diplomats also sell a part of their legal quota to bootleggers. An Asian embassy in Islam- abad once ran its own wine shop, according to former customers.

The black market raises prices - a bottle of Murree gin can cost double its regular price, even when bootleggers dilute the spirit. Cheap and dangerous moonshine is also available, often drunk with fatal consequences by the poor during festivals.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'Pakistan's alcohol trade booming legally and illegally'. Print Edition | Subscribe