Pakistan's sole purveyor of alcoholic drinks, which is producing one of the world's few 21-year-old malt whiskeys, aims to market its products abroad.
'Have a Murree with your curry'
RAWALPINDI, PAKISTAN // The stout walls of the Murree Brewery serve as a reminder that there is more to Pakistan than the Taliban. The news headlines in recent weeks have focused on how Taliban militants had arrived only 96 metres from the capital, Islamabad. Before being beaten back this week by security forces, the militants were only a few metres farther away from one of the Indian subcontinent's most historic breweries, which is entrenched in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.
"The Taliban is only a fraction of 176 million people and they have no support and will never succeed," said Isfanyar Bhandara, a Parsee businessman whose family has run the brewery since the creation of Pakistan at the partition of British India in 1947. The innovations that the Bhandara family have made mean that next week the Islamic republic of Pakistan will win the distinction of producing the country's first 21-year-old malt whiskey.
"[Last] Monday we were granted a licence to bottle and sell the single malt and so it will be on sale next week," said Maj Sabih-ur-Rehman, a debonair, polo-playing special assistant to Mr Bhandara. The Murree Brewery was founded in 1860 to produce ale and spirits to slake the formidable thirst of soldiers during the British Raj. It is the only producer of whisky and beer in a Muslim country. Despite a torrid history in which it has been burnt down by a Muslim crowd and temporarily shut down in a pro-Islamist government fit of pique, the brewery has survived against the odds and has previously produced celebrated eight- and 12-year-old single malts.
"Very few distilleries in the world, even the high-end ones in Scotland, produce 20-year-old malts," Mr Bhandara said. Officially, the 21-year malt will be true to its name of "Rarest". Under Pakistani law, it cannot be drunk by 97 per cent of the country, and it cannot be exported. Pakistan's Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Christian and animist minorities, which make up three per cent of the population, are the official consumers of Murree's vast annually produced reservoir of sharab, alcohol.
The brewery was named after Murree hill station in the Himalayan foothills. Yesterday, the clatter of bottles filled the air and the treacly smell of molasses drifted over the brick and whitewashed walls of the brewery's offices. On its main gate, the brewery's golden crest, which depicts two lions rampant standing on either side of a beer cask, shone in the sun. Ali Sher, 43, has worked at the brewery for the past three years. He is a quality control supervisor. While he may not have firsthand experience of the product, he is unlikely to be the source of any pilferage.
"I have never tasted the drink as I am a Muslim who prays five times a day," he said. Murree also produces popular fruit juices, marmalades and vinegar. The days of unfettered excess belong to the British colonial past. The brewery's leather-bound records recall that at the end of the 19th century the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders consumed 4,000 hogsheads (21,600 gallons) of Murree beer in three years of service. In those days the company slogan was "Eat, drink and be Murree".
The brewery remained at the hill station until a mob burnt it in 1947. In 1977 the former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, an avowed "progressive", bowed to the demands of Islamic political parties and imposed an alcohol ban. Mr Bhandara's father, Minoo, who died last year aged 70 after being injured in a car crash, was a much-loved scourge of Pakistan's religious bigots. A sybarite, a member of Pakistan's parliament and an Oxford graduate, the elder Mr Bhandara battled against the "Teatotalitarian" state.
The brewery continues to face harassment from some Islamist political parties. Attaur Rehman, the minister for tourism who is the brother of the head of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, has recently closed down the brewery's sales outlet in Rawalpindi's Flashman's Hotel. But the brewery has friends in high places too. Pakistan's former president, Gen Pervez Musharraf, is partial to a chota peg (small dram) of whisky, and the colonial-era army chief's residence - where he still resides - sits opposite the brewery.
Mr Bhandara hopes that Murree beer, which like its other alcoholic products is forbidden to be exported under Pakistani law, will soon be available outside Pakistan. "We want to sell it under the slogan 'Have a Murree With Your Curry' if we can get foreign brewers to produce the old sahib's favourite drink under license," Mr Maj Sabih said. email@example.com