Beer and whisky made in Pakistan
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.
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.