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A Touch of Scotland in Dry Pakistan: Distilling the Muslim World's First 20-Year-Old Whisky

By Padma Rao in Rawalpindi, Pakistan

An almost 150-year-old brewery in Pakistan is preparing to bring the Muslim world's first 20-year-old single malt whisky to the market. Murree Brewery, however, can only sell to non-Muslims, who comprise 3 percent of Pakistan's population.

The heart of the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi is dotted with paradoxes.

Amidst the foliage of the Jinnah National Park, an expansive garden that houses the prison where former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto was hanged in 1979, the giant "M" of an American fast food chain rises like a monolith.

Behind it runs the National Park Road, a leafy, residential avenue replete with road blocks and bearded men carrying submachine guns. Hanging over it all is the distinct and unmistakable smell of fermenting alcohol.

What, in Allah's name, is going on here?

The 150-year-old Murree Brewery is teeming with activity. One of the Islamic world's most successful breweries will soon launch a rare, one-off product of its distillery: a 20-year-old single malt whisky that is the first of its kind in the Muslim world.

But the armed police are not here to guard the amber fluid. They're here to protect the brewery's equally famous neighbor on National Park Road and currently the man most wanted by Islamic terrorists in the region: Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, the country's leader and teetotaller-in-chief.

"The irony is lost on nobody," chuckles brewery owner Minoo Bhandara, peering through his glasses at the tall gates of Musharaff's house across the street as he takes a sip of a beer brewed from Bavarian hops. But he insists that the existence of a brewery in a country where the 97-percent Muslim majority is barred from drinking alcohol is not some freak occurrence: "It merely reflects an age-old tolerance which the West is ignorant about."

Bhandara's faith in his country's secular credentials is a far cry from Pakistan's post-9/11 reputation as a nest for Islamic terrorists. But if there is anyone who is qualified to comment, it's the 69-year-old brewer.

As a member of Pakistan's tiny Zoroastrian minority, Bhandara's own ancestors fled religious persecution in newly Islamic Persia to settle in the pluralistic and tolerant Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago.

Along with Hindus, Sikhs, Christians and others, the Zoroastrians, known as "Parsi," make up the religious minority of 3 percent who are excluded from Pakistan's rigid anti-alcohol law and allowed to buy beer, wine and spirits from state-owned shops.

Throughout the British era and right up to 30 years after independence, Pakistan’s liquor laws remained liberal -- just like those in neighboring India. In order to harness some of the growing influence of Islamic fundamentalist parties, though, former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto banned alcohol in the late 1970s.

Even today many Muslims continue to enjoy alcohol, albeit at great expense and under cover. Hospitable and rich hosts in the big cities of Islamabad and Karachi ply guests with the finest wines and spirits delivered to their doorsteps by non-Muslim friends or bought on the black market. Of course, the rich aren't the only Muslims who drink here, and tragic deaths from cheap, contaminated bootleg alcohol continue to make the headlines.

'Even in Pakistan, Prohibition Will Not Work'

The tendency of upwardly mobile Muslims to occasionally enjoy a tipple is by no means restricted to Pakistan. "Britain's leading gin manufacturer told me that his biggest market is not the United States but the officially dry Saudi Arabia," says Bhandara. "Even in Pakistan, prohibition will not work -- it is just lip service to propriety."

Earlier this year, a member of parliament whose party is part of Musharraf’s ruling coalition made headlines by asking Pakistan’s National Assembly to lift the ban, arguing that the prohibition on alcohol, "a minor evil," was only driving people to drugs.

There are also differing views on whether there is a strict ban on alcohol in the Koran. Scholars say that there are at least three references to alcohol in the sacred text: not to pray in a drunken state, to discard what one does not need and to regard alcohol as the work of Satan.

But the same fundamentalist Islamic clerics and the stridently oppositional Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal coalition of religious parties who are the most vociferous critics of Musharaff's policies of opening the country and improving its ties with the United States also help to ensure that the alcohol ban remains in place. They routinely hold up the latter Koran reference as ultimate proof of the Islamic ban on alcohol. But Pakistan's Western-educated elite and liberal army officers -- many of whom trained overseas -- would prefer to leave the Koran references open to interpretation.

A Matterhorn Climber Opens a Brewery

Still, the country's highly restrictive alcohol laws haven't stopped Murree from building one of the most successful breweries in the Muslim world.

Murree Brewery was founded in 1860 by relatives of the British mountaineer Edward Whymper, who, five years later, became the first man to scale the Matterhorn. It is named after the misty, western Himalayan town of Murree, located some 50 kilometers away from Rawalpindi and the city in which the brewery was originally founded to quench the thirst of British troops in colonial India.

Though the company produces only a fraction of the world's beer -- 30,000 hectoliters out of an estimated 2 million hectoliters globally, according to Bhandara -- it has long been successful in Pakistan. Despite the country's alcohol ban, Murree manages to stay afloat because of huge demand -- among both Muslims and non-Muslims -- and the company's virtual monopoly among beer producers.

Of the country's three breweries -- the others are located in Quetta and Karachi -- Murree holds a 70 percent market share. Muslims are allowed to hold shares in the company, which is listed on the Karachi Stock Exchange. In the late 1990s, it twice listed as one of the country's 25 top performing stocks.

'Have a Murree with Your Curry'

Bhandara is now eager to set up joint ventures in the mammoth Indian market and also in Europe, where the Pakistani brew will be launched with the catchy advertising campaign, "Have a Murree with your curry."

International recognition is nothing new for the company. Murree Beer was awarded a medal for product excellence at the Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876, and various other international awards over the past 140 years. The company's 8-year-old single malt whisky has already received lavish praise from none less than three-time Glenfiddich Whisky Writer of the Year Jim Murray.

"Not only does (Murree whisky) compare favorably, it is much better than a number of less-known Scotch malts," Murray writes in his Complete Book of Whisky. "Crisp and delicate … so good is this whisky that ... (you) smell a drained glass in the morning and you are swamped by its fabulously honeyed riches."

Murree will launch its real jewel, its 20-year-old single malt, as part of a one-time limited edition offer next year. There will be 200 cases of 12 bottles each, priced modestly at 2,500 Pakistan rupees (around $40) a bottle. The brewery is also thinking of selling posters and souvenirs of the original, lithographic calendars and paintings of the Murree hills made by the Whympers family.

In the dark, cool cellars of the Murree distillery, many of the employees handling the huge oak casks wear Muslim prayer-caps. Murree can even boast a female bookkeeper. Of course, not all employees drink, but those who do are not afraid to admit it. Perhaps most importantly, none are ashamed of their job, no matter what their conservative neighbors might mumble.

"Most people don't really care where we work, but some do," says US-trained brewer and technical manager Mohammed Javed. "There are lots of other, more serious evils which the Koran forbids, like hurt and torture -- why don't they focus on eliminating those?"

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