RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – In Pakistan, literally meaning the “Land of the Pure,” the Murree Brewery is thriving after having survived earthquakes, the destruction of its factory by an angry mob and, above all, a ban on Muslims drinking alcohol.
A group of workers load crates of beer, watch bottles of gin moving on conveyor belts and place labels in the brewery’s factory in Rawalpindi, around 20 km (12 miles) from Islamabad, where the 159-year-old company produces its drinks.
A strong smell of alcohol assaults the senses on the factory’s premises.
It is an uncommon stench in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the 207 million inhabitants are Muslims who are banned from drinking alcohol as per a law enacted in 1977.
Founded in 1860 by three British engineers “to quench the thirst of the soldiers,” Murree, one of the oldest in Asia, is the only brewery in the country.
The company, one of three distilleries in the country that also sells bottled water and juices, saw its profits soar 41 percent last year after a poor 2017, recovering the upward trend which, since 2012, has helped it increase its revenues by 100 percent.
In 2016, the company doubled its production capacity for the six types of beer it produces as well as a dozen spirits, including gin, whiskey and vodka.
“We try to make people happy and make good quality beer, good quality spirits,” CEO Isphanyar Bhandara told EFE at the center of operations in Rawalpindi, where the company moved from the northern city of Murree in 1890 in search of more space.
Isphanyar’s grandfather Peshton Bandhara bought the company from the British after the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, a violent process from which even the brewery did not escape. The factory was torched by an angry mob due to its colonial origin.
Isphanyar carefully chooses the words he uses when he talks about his family business as alcohol is a very sensitive subject in the country. But he fails to hide his pride.
“This is the oldest in Pakistan and probably the oldest in the Indian subcontinent. One of the best in the stock exchange and one of the biggest companies paying taxes,” said Isphanyar, who belongs to the Parsi minority.
His special assistant, former Army Major Sabih ur Rehman, confirmed the discretion with which they operate.
“We don’t do publicity of Murree Brewery. There was a time when you could put a beer in a paper,” Rehman told EFE.
This was during the period before 1977 when then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto banned the consumption of alcohol amid pressure from Islamists, which caused riots and destroyed liquor stores.
After the ban, one can, in theory, only buy alcohol in the few “wine shops” that exist in the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh or luxury hotels in other parts of the country.
In Islamabad, only three hotels serve alcohol and in only one of them is there something resembling a bar, which does not allow the entry of Muslims.
But, as writer-columnist Nadeem F. Paracha wrote in an article, “Pakistanis never did stop drinking.”
The consumption of alcohol in the country extends much beyond the 6.2 million members of the Christian, Hindu and Parsi religious minorities, who can get a permit to buy up to six crates of beer or six bottles of whiskey per month.
Many of these drinks end up on the black market and can be purchased easily.
Moreover, those without legal access to alcohol resort to illegally distilled alcohol, which causes dozens of deaths such as in March 2016, when 45 people died after consuming spurious alcohol in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh. Such incidents are frequent in the country.
“I, too, like to have fun and have a drink,” a retired official, who has also worked for international organizations, told EFE on grounds of anonymity.
The official recalled how in the 1970s one could enjoy a glass of whiskey at home or with friends at a restaurant after a day at work.
“It should be my decision if I drink or not,” he said.
Alcohol has also played a role in the complex relations between Pakistan and the United States, centered around terrorism and the Afghan War, as Steve Coll explains in his book “Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“For some reason, American officials often measured the reliability of Pakistani military officers by their willingness to drink,” explains the academic and journalist.
Isphanyar does not think consumption of alcohol should be legalized in the country because he believes “if you allow alcohol, there will be problems on the streets because Pakistanis will not be able to handle this freedom of alcohol.”
Nor does he think any party or government will try to do so.
“It will be political suicide if any government says ‘let everyone drink, open up alcohol,’” he said.