QUARTER-LITRE bottles of whisky whizz down a conveyor belt past Mukhtar Ali, a quality-control employee at Pakistan’s Murree Brewery, the only legal beer-and-spirit maker in this Islamic country. Nearby labourers pack Vat No.1, a cask-aged spirit, into boxes. An elderly man with a long beard tapes them up. Asked over the roar of imported German machinery if they have ever taken a sip of the amber liquid, each shakes his head. “It’s haram,” (meaning forbidden), says Mr Ali.
The 155-year-old institution causes some spluttering nonetheless. Founded for British troops of the Raj, it can sell only to the 3% of the 207m-strong population that is comprised of foreigners and non-Muslims. But many of its products end up in Muslim hands, as illustrated by the predilections of the former prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who ordered a nationwide ban on alcohol in 1977. “He was the biggest consumer of Murree in history!” says the company’s boss, Isphanyar Bhandara. Some employees do sneak drinks on the job, he adds.
Shareholders can toast a vintage few years for the firm, whose market capitalisation of $160m makes it one of the largest food and beverage firms listed on Pakistan’s stockmarket. In 2016, it doubled its alcohol-production capacity. Profits have risen by almost 100% since 2012, reaching a foamy $19.6m last year.
One reason is an influx of thirsty Chinese citizens, who clamour for alcohol as they deepen their country’s footprint in Pakistan. An increasingly relaxed officialdom also helps. Government employees work inside Murree’s fortress-like walls and hold the keys to locks on every vat of whisky. Yet in recent years provincial administrations have granted more permits to individuals and upmarket hotels to indulge. Elite Pakistanis, able to afford prices of around $3 for a can of lager, are a reliable source of demand.
It also helps that in 2009 the main sharia court ruled that the official punishment for drinking—80 lashes—was itself un-Islamic; the verdict had never been imposed. Yet Murree’s product remains a touchy subject. In 2016 the Sindh High Court temporarily banned all sales of alcohol in the southern province, a significant blow to profits as it accounts for 60% of Murree’s liquor sales. The case still hangs over the company.
To guard against such headaches in future, Murree is expanding its range of soft drinks, including Murree Sparklers, a sort of carbonated water. Freer liquor markets abroad also appeal. Attempts to brew Murree in neighbouring India (Pakistan’s law forbids exporting it outright) have foundered, the result of sour diplomatic relations. Yet the firm soon hopes to offer British citizens the chance, once again, to “have a Murree with your curry”. A worldwide distribution deal is being negotiated through a Czech brewery that produces its beer. “The Brits started it here, so why not?” says a tweed-jacketed executive, Sabih Ur Rehman, puffing on a Silk Cut cigarette.