Beer and whisky made in Pakistan

To many the name of Pakistan calls up images of Islamic extremism, religious intolerance, state corruption and the long years of terror. It’s probably safe to say that single malt whisky, half a dozen brands of beer and a 120-year-old brewing tradition are unlikely to be near the top of anyone’s word association list. By Philipp Breu

By Philipp Breu

With a population that is around 96 percent Muslim, many of them extremely devout, Pakistan is not, at first glance, the most promising of places for a company that brews beer and distils spirits to set up in business. The Murree Brewery, which today has its headquarters in Rawalpindi, near to the capital Islamabad, dates back to 1860, when the entire region was part of British India and the emergence of a country named Pakistan lay far off in the distant future.

Back then, as now, the soldiers of the Queen were a thirsty lot and the expense of importing beer and spirits from back home prohibitive. The troops stationed at the former Murree Hill Station, nowadays a quiet recreational area near Islamabad, decided the solution was to open their own brewery. After the British withdrawal and Pakistan’s independence in 1947, the brewery too became an independent company.

Up in flames

By then, it had already expanded into other cities and its products were proving popular. The chaos that erupted with the division of the subcontinent brought the deaths of up to a million people. The brewery in Murree also fell victim to the conflagration and today the Rawalpindi plant is the sole survivor of the once extensive business.

"We are extremely proud of our history and our products," says CEO, Isphanyar M. Bhandara. The 47-year-old is sitting in his brewery office in Rawalpindi on a Saturday during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Today’s visit is a doubly rare event in Pakistan as most companies close in the daytime during Ramadan, or work is at least limited. In addition, almost all companies in Pakistan work a five-day week only. The Murree Brewery, however, not only works in the fasting month, it also does so on six days a week.

An engineer monitors the tanks used for beer-making at the Murree Brewery (photo: Philipp Breu)
Beim Rundgang über das ausgedehnte Gelände der Anlage sieht man moderne Abfüllanlagen und Sudkessel, Wasserfiltrationsanlagen aus Deutschland, Laboratorien zur ständigen Kontrolle der Getränke und Zutaten und den vielleicht bestgehüteten Keller des Landes, in dem der Whiskey gelagert wird. Pakistan ist übrigens das einzige islamische Land der Welt, das Whiskey produziert.

A tour of the extensive site reveals modern bottling facilities, brewing tanks, water filtration plants from Germany, laboratories for on-going beverage monitoring and their ingredients, and what may well be the country’s most jealously guarded cellar – the whisky store. Around a million litres of the spirit are stored here, with the oldest barrel going back to 2003.

The vicissitudes of the country’s history have meant that Bhandara’s company has had to be adaptable to survive. When Pakistan was founded in 1948, it was still a secular republic; the Islamic Republic in the present name of the country was added in 1956, and in 1977, Prime Minister Zulfikar Bhutto passed a law, intended as a gift to the Islamic parties, which would change the identity of the brewery forever.

A lucrative business

"Up to that point, it was possible for all Pakistani citizens to legally buy and consume alcoholic beverages, even if it was not compatible with the Islamic commandments. However, the new law stipulated that all Muslims, including foreigners, could no longer buy or consume alcohol in Pakistan, and we were forced to adapt and diversify. Since then, we have been producing lemonade, water, non-alcoholic beer and even jams. In the early days, we had major problems trying to make up the loss of sales, but today it is these products that are our biggest earners," Bhandara explains proudly.

Bhandara belongs to the country’s Parsi minority. Non-Muslims, such as Parsis, Christians or Hindus, are the only members of the population legally permitted to buy alcohol in Pakistan. The minorities taken together make up less than five percent of the population – fewer than nine million potential customers for the company's alcoholic products.

Due to the privileged status, and his family’s good contacts, Bhandara held the seat reserved for the Parsis in the Pakistani parliament from 2013 to 2018. It is the military that holds most influence in the country and the brewery has benefitted from that.

The army has no interest in seeing sales decline, customers depart, or the brewery closed down as many conservative Muslims have demanded. The military still holds a large financial stake in the company and earns its share of the profits. For many years, the brewery was one of Pakistan’s fastest growing companies, and even today it employs more than 200 workers at its Rawalpindi headquarters.

A worker at the Muree Brewery facility checks drinks cans before they are filled with alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages (photo: Philipp Breu)
Braukunst auf pakistanisch: In einer Halle auf dem Gelände der Murree-Brauerei kontrolliert ein Arbeiter Getränkedosen, die gewaschen werden, bevor sie mit alkoholischen und alkoholfreien Getränken abgefüllt werden.

"My employees are like a mirror of the society in this country; most of them are Muslims, as are the majority of my customers," Bhandara explains as he discusses things with his assistant and advisor, Sabih ul-Rehman, in the office. Formerly a major in the Pakistani armed forces, ul-Rehman has worked for the company for years and has responsibility for looking after visiting delegations from foreign embassies and for business partners.

Ul-Rehman's services are in demand – the brewery is located in one of the army’s high-security areas, surrounded by checkpoints and not accessible to the public. The reason for the tight security is not the production of alcohol, however, but the fact that the chief of staff of the Pakistani army – who, after the president and the prime minister, is probably the most powerful person in the state – has his residence and place of work just opposite the brewery. The company and the army are close in every sense.

Spirit of the law

So, how do the locals, or foreigners, go about getting their hands on the brewery’s alcoholic products? Since the 1977 ban, there have been only a few hotels, restaurants and other channels through which alcohol can be legally served or sold. The number of licensees in the entire country is well below fifty. In Karachi, for example, a city with a population of almost twenty million, there are five shops selling alcohol, along with three hotels and one restaurant.

Isphanyar Bhandara poses in his office for a photo. Behind him is a wall-hanging displaying the main tenets of the Parsi faith: "Good thoughts, good deeds, good words" (photo: Philipp Breu)
A rare privilege: the brewery's managing director, Isphanyar M. Bhandara, belongs to Pakistan's Parsi minority. Non-Muslims, such as Parsis, Christians or Hindus, are the only members of the population legally permitted to buy alcohol in Pakistan. The minorities taken together make up less than five percent of the population – fewer than nine million potential customers for the company's alcoholic products

The law requires every licensee in Pakistan to check whether their customers are entitled to buy and consume alcohol, and customers must have permission from the ministry of the interior. As a foreigner, however, you are not asked to produce papers either at Karachi’s only licensed restaurant – a Chinese restaurant – nor in the hotels or shops.

The shop selling spirits is not recognisable as such from the outside; it is only the numerous small motorcycles parked outside that hint at its true purpose. Inside, is a small room with a barred counter around which a crowd is gathered – about fifteen customers are waving money at the people behind the counter, who are busily wrapping bottles in Chinese newspapers and stuffing them into plastic bags.

Sales are quick and discreet, with most customers in and out of the shop within 30 seconds – and no one asked for papers! The owner, a Hindu, confirms that most if not all, of his customers are Muslims. "That just the way it is in Pakistan. The brewery supplies us, and in the end everyone is happy."

Isphanyar M. Bhandara has no problem living with the fact that alcohol is being sold illegally all over Pakistan. "All of our customers are licensed and accredited to sell alcohol by the government," he assures us. "How they actually sell it, and whether they really ask every customer for papers or not, is their business, not ours. We don’t sell to the consumers."

Philipp Breu

© 2019

Translated from the German by Ron Walker