Standing in a dark deserted alley, two young teenagers eagerly wait at midnight for their dealer to arrive. The bootlegger soon enters on an old bike, stopping for a split second to exchange a brown bag containing three bottles of local beer for some money. Even after he has fled, the boys continue to wait for some time, until the coast is clear.
“It was the first time we had a beer. I was just 17. We did not even know how one drinks beer, so we mixed it with Coke,” reminisces W.S., recalling that first experience buying beer illegally. “It used to be quite an adventure when I was younger. We had to look for the right bootlegger, who sold authentic alcohol, decide a vacant dark location, and be careful of getting caught by the police or by your parents,” he laughs. W.S. is a Muslim, which makes it illegal for him to drink or acquire alcohol in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
The sale of alcoholic beverages was banned for Pakistan’s Muslims in 1977, soon after a political rally in Lahore, where the country’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto announced, “Yes, I drink, but I do not drink the people’s blood.”
To assuage the right-wing religious parties angered by his statement, Bhutto banned alcohol. Later that same year he was removed from power in a military coup and hanged.
While Islamic law forbids the consumption of alcohol and deems it sinful, it does not prescribe any physical punishment for it. Under Pakistan’s law, however, Muslims caught drinking alcohol can be sentenced to up to three years in prison with a maximum of 30 lashes. If caught in possession of alcohol, one can be locked up for two years. The laws are not strictly implemented. Bribing police officials is the norm, but the moral implications and social pressures are severe.
Non-Muslims and foreigners, on the other hand, must obtain a yearly government permit for $7, which limits their monthly purchases. Only designated retailers, like wine shops (in Sindh and Balochistan) and upscale hotels (across the nation), are permitted to sell alcohol beverages to non-Muslims.
More than four decades after the ban, however, alcohol consumption in the country has hardly ceased to exist. Pakistan is home to one profitable legal brewery and two distilleries, along with a thriving black market for imported alcohol and moonshine—locally produced illegal alcoholic beverages.
These factories are allowed to cater only to the 3.7% non-Muslim population of the country, except in northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, bordering Afghanistan, where the sale and consumption of alcohol is outright banned.
“All my Muslim friends, girls and boys, drink alcohol. Some who do not drink occasionally sip a can of beer,” says W.S., who now lives independently.
Previously, W.S had to hide his drinking habits, not only because it is illegal to drink but also out of fear of moral policing by society. “It is common to keep it hush here, especially if you are a girl. An open drinker usually commits moral societal suicide.”
As an independent businessman, today W.S. throws B.Y.O.B parties. “My bootleggers call me up whenever they have new stock and drop it at my doorstep.”
On average, W.S spends $200 on alcohol per month. In summers he prefers Murree beers, from the only legal local brewery, "which is as good as a Heineken." A 500ml beer can cost anything between $3 to $8 depending on the bootlegger, and a bottle of imported Heineken can cost up to $15.
The Lone Soldier
Murree Brewery, Pakistan’s only legal brewery, was set up by colonists under British rule in 1860.
A large sum of the shares to the factory were bought by a Parsi family during the 1947 Indo-Pak partition. “I am the third-generation Bhandara to run the brewery,” Isphanyar Bhandara, chief executive of Murree Brewery, states with pride.
In 2008, the company’s shares were at PKR 60 (about $0.39). In 2012, it topped the stock market at PKR 1200 (about $7.74). “Even today we are the highest priced Pakistani food product company and are hovering around Rs680,” or about $9.55, he says.
In 2012, the brewery gained international fame when Scout Willis, daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis, was arrested for underage drinking in New York with a can of Murree lager. “We were flooded with emails from the West asking for crates and samples,”Bhandara says.
Murree produces seven types of beers, all of which are entirely made from ingredients imported from Australia and Germany. Their alcohol content ranges from 2% to 9% ABV. “All our beers are our best sellers,” states Bhandara.
Even though Murree contributes PKR 5.5 billion (more than $35 million) to the national exchequer annually, the factory is highly regulated by the government of Pakistan. “The government is the main beneficiary, followed by the middleman,” Bhandara adds The brewery is not allowed to advertise or export its products, “Our prices, logos, labels, and even color palates are first approved by the excise department.”
The company claims to have sold 1.4 million cases of beer and the same number of cases of all other alcoholic beverages in the past year. Its sales peaked at PKR 7676 million (more than $49 million) in 2019, a PKR 842 million ($5.4 million) increase from its 2018 sales.
While the company’s efforts to break into the Western market have been unsuccessful in the past, Bhandara believes that exporting beer could promote a softer image of Pakistan to the world.
He also acknowledges that the brewery’s sales do not come from just serving the non-Muslim population of the country. “Of course, Muslims drink. We know that but we are only allowed to sell to hotels and to wine shops, which in turn are only supposed to sell to non-Muslims. Where they sell is not my concern.”
To Legalize or Not to Legalize
Shaams* remembers a time when alcohol was served openly at select restaurants and parties in the capital of the city, “I was young. Though alcohol was legal, it was frowned upon by the majority [Muslim population],” he shares.
Today, at the age of 64, he believes that the majority of the population have not been affected by the ban. “Yes, it was legal but it was not available like water. One had to go to certain shops to buy them. It was morally frowned upon yet there were no restrictions due to one’s beliefs,” he says.
Nevertheless, many Pakistanis believe that alcohol should be regulated and legalized, as the bootlegger mafia is growing stronger and inflating the cost of beverages.
Bootleggers are non-Muslim residents who can legally buy alcohol via permits from bars and wine shops. They cater only to the Muslim population.
Bars stock locally produced alcohol, with Murree products being a favorite. Yet they also often carry imported alcohol, which is illegal. “Foreign alcohol is only imported for embassies in Pakistan or caught by Customs, who sell it under the table to black market vendors,” said Kashi*, a bootlegger in Punjab.
Imported alcohol makes up most of the bootleggers’ profits., “Local drinks aren’t as smooth as the imported ones,” said Mariam*, a consumer based in Lahore.
Despite all of this, returning to a pre-Prohibition Pakistan is a risk that the government is not ready to take. “It will be suicidal for any political party or government to even suggest legalizing alcohol,” says Bhandara, who has never lobbied for such a change, for safety reasons. "The more noise I make the more negativity I could attract."
Having lived under the alcohol ban for years, even alcohol consumers express uncertainty about the effects legalization could have. “If buying for all is legalized, it could contribute to substance abuse, create many unknown social issues and ills in the society,” says Mariam.
*Names have been changed to protect sources' identities
Top photo: Beverages being loaded into trucks. Employees of the factory and government overlook the process.