The dry nation of Pakistan, a country with a 97 percent Muslim majority and a strong religious right, is the last place you'd go looking for a frothing, ice-cold mug of beer. Although the country has (slightly) relaxed its rules on illicit imbibing by Muslims—a court in 2009 suggested the government repeal the punishment of 80 lashes for drinking—Pakistan still seems like a dodgy destination for getting a buzz.
But if you belong to a very slim demographic (or are just flat-out ballsy), it's also the place where you can enjoy legally and domestically brewed lager, sip award-winning, 21-year-old single malt Scotch, along with a variety of other spirits. Today, the military city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, is home to one of Asia's first modern beer breweries and Pakistan's collectively oldest, largest, and solo legal brewery and distillery, Murree.
For 30 years following its independence, Pakistan maintained liberal liquor laws and an established bar and drinking scene. But in 1977, all of that changed when then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto conceded to the religious right a prohibition that has remained in effect ever since, restricting the country's Muslims from consuming and buying alcohol. Still, Muree remains one of the country's largest companies—an irony lost on no one.
A relic of British colonial occupation on the subcontinent, where the brewery slaked the parched throats of Raj troops stationed there, Murree has enjoyed something of a 152-year monopoly on alcohol in Pakistan. However, its market (legally) comprises only foreign expats and non-Muslims—about three percent of the population.
Murree is not allowed to advertise its alcoholic beverages in Pakistan under prohibition laws—in fact, its large neon signs were some of the first destroyed in the religious riots against the Bhutto regime in 1977.
With such a nominally restricted target demographic, the brewery's success is confusing at first. One reason could be traced to the dangers that lurk in the murky, sloshing bathtubs of homemade Pakistani moonshine. In 2007, one bad batch caused the deaths of 40 people while blinding many others. According to Murree's special assistant to the chief executive, Sabih Ur Rehman, bootlegged alcohol is both a large and dangerous presence in Pakistan. "Every year, as reported in the press, people die due to the consumption of so-called fake products. It is strictly advised to procure the product from legal outlets to avoid serious danger to life," he said in an email.
Murree is not allowed to advertise its alcoholic beverages in Pakistan under prohibition laws—in fact, its large neon signs were some of the first destroyed in the religious riots against the Bhutto regime in 1977. Even with its limited legal status, you'd think that the largest producer of booze would get more flack from conservative groups concerned with general moral degradation. But the company stresses its adherence to cultural boundaries. "Our products are meant for the non-Muslim Pakistanis and we follow the law of the land by the book," Rehman said. "We [follow] the laid down legal channels to sell it. We do get both positive and negative feedback from various groups, though not necessarily from conservatives alone," he said.
But as with any habit, he admitted to The Guardian that regulations are widely skirted, and "many of the other 97 percent also drink." And in a country growing steadily creakier at the seams, along with increasing drug problems, it seems a pushback from conservatives is likely, which doesn't exactly bode well for Murree's home market. "Each day we are allowed to survive," Murree's chief executive, Ispanyar Bhandara told Reuters, "that is a blessing." Luckily for them, though, things are bubbling abroad.
Two years ago, Murree scored "multi-million dollars worth of publicity by default" when Bruce Willis' daughter was caught underage with a can of its beer in New York's Union Square subway station, and the case was chronicled in the tabloids. "We plan to go to the US and make a queue to hug both the daughter and the mother," Rehman told Reuters.
Murree's rather sad domestic growth market paired with the unexpected publicity seems to have launched the company onto a newly international playing field. In 2012 it began announcing expansion plans for new markets including those in the United States, China, India, and Dubai. The following year, Murree even made Forbes' Asia's 200 Best Under a Billion list. While some markets like India, whose population put down about two billion liters of beer in 2011 alone, are likely moneymakers, others veer off into the unknown.
In a Park Avenue building in Manhattan, Murree has established a flagship office to head up the Murree Brewery USA initiative, which will incorporate a 30-barrel brewhouse system, producing an initial run of 6,000 barrels annually. It is unclear when the brewery will begin production.
Murree USA did not return my phone calls, but according to their website, they will offer most of the same products as those produced on the subcontinent, including a variety of beers, hard liquors, and the ever-compelling "SMAG!" energy drink.
So far, there's a good amount of mystery that shrouds the brewery's American venture, such as its target demographic. After all, Muslim expats living abroad are unlikely to be regular drinkers. Nor can tabloids can't do all the marketing, and the company's vaguely nautical/ranch-hand-themed website doesn't help. It's also safe to say designers were bereft of concern when they Photoshopped their name onto an iconic American beer bottle, suggesting that Muree is perhaps not up to speed on the market's standard operating procedures. But, given an increased interest in obscure foreign beers, along with smaller and smaller breweries over the past few decades, it has the potential to fall into place as a popular niche item.
For imbibing Pakistanis living abroad in the US, Murree's emerging presence could bring a welcome taste of home. It's crisp, sweet corn and malt profiles, poured from an attractive green can, will be those that they remember, and those that cricketers sipped in the '70s. Just ask Scout Willis.