A thirsty Robert Hardman
discovers a distillery in a Pakistani town
Quetta THE streets are full of talk of jihad. The mullahs' men scour the bazaars for those who have missed prayers at the mosque. Taleban spies are everywhere, even in the lobby of the hacks' hotel. The fundamentalist Afghan regime has no greater bedrock of support outside Afghanistan than Quetta, Pakistan's angriest frontier town. Most of the local population share the same Pashtun ancestry as the Taleban. Many are expat Afghans. Quetta is nearer to the Afghan city of Kandahar — the Taleban's power base — than anywhere else. And yet, tucked away in these mean streets, I stumbled across a small band of what can only be described as heroes. They are the men who make the booze under the very noses of the world's most dipsophobic regime.
The last thing I expected to find in a proto-Taleban outpost of an Islamic nation was a licensed distillery. After all, it was the Taleban who, not long ago, lined up every last bottle of spirits in Afghanistan and drove over them in a tank. But Quetta is the unlikely hub of Pakistan's liquor industry — and it all goes back to the British.
In the days of empire, the booze would flow from the Hindu Kush to Ceylon as the colonial rulers fortified themselves against the rigours of colonial life with gin slings, sundowners and vast quantities of whisky. Quetta pumped out gallons of the stuff for all those poor souls on the frontier. The creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947 changed all that. Today, Pakistan's entire booze production consists of one distillery in Quetta, another in Karachi and a brewery in Rawalpindi. They exist solely to cater — legally but discreetly — to the needs of non-Muslim foreigners who require a special permit to buy alcohol from licensed shops.
Privately owned but rigorously monitored by the state, these secretive businesses do not advertise, and maintain a strenuously low profile. But their quiet work has been a godsend to the legion of parched hacks now stuck in Pakistan. Alcohol imports are banned and the last drops of our carefully concealed duty-free ran out some time last month. Suddenly, exotic new brands such as London Dry Gin, Two Hearts Brandy and XXX Rum are the staple of thirsty news-gatherers. And much of it comes from a heavily guarded, unmarked factory site in the back streets of Quetta, just around the corner from some of the worst of last week's proTaleban rioting.
There has been a distillery on this spot since the days when Kipling chronicled frontier life here. He probably sunk a few drams of QDL whisky in his time. The plant survived an earthquake in 1935 but not Partition, when a Muslim mob burned the place to the ground. It was rebuilt but was shut down in 1977 by Prime Minister Bhutto as a sop to the religious extremists. This was pretty rich considering Bhutto's fondness for a large one.
The ban was quietly lifted in 1981. Eight years later, though, local religious leaders in the Baluchistan provincial government shut down the Quetta operation again. The stills sat idle for another two years until a change in government allowed the distillery to resume production, again with extreme discretion. And, today, even as the Taleban hordes patrol the streets outside, it continues its noble work.
No wonder, then, that the management refused to talk to me about their operation. Many locals are not even aware what goes on behind those walls, and that is just how the Quetta distillery wants to keep it. If the local mullahs and their anti-Western, antigovernment rallies become any more fiery, then this place will be a prime target.
Everything about the place is a secret, right down to its ownership (a 'foreign businessman', I later learn). But one of the workers generously offered to give me a quick guided tour. After a long day on Diet Coke and mineral water, I did not need encouragement.
On the other side of the steel gates, beyond the armed guards and a tanker disguised as a petrol lorry, I was shown a shed containing the original pot stills that produced Kipling's evening snifter. These have been replaced by an antiquated but spotless production line housed in a huge tower. Gleaming pipes and polished brass gauges from another age gurgle and hiss as they churn out neat alcohol from molasses, which then flows into separate vats for separate drinks.
All the brands, it turns out, are based on the same neat alcohol, which is flavoured and coloured to make it as close to conventional whisky, brandy, vodka and rum as possible. It reminded me of making Sodastream drinks as a child. But when there's no alternative, you can't be too fussy.
'We haven't got anywhere to store grain for whisky, and it would all take too long to make anyway,' my guide explained as we entered the bottling plant. Here I found ten glum-faced workers toiling over some splendid Heath Robinson gadgets. One man held a bottle under a machine pipe which squirted out just the right amount of whisky, before handing it to another man, who stuck it on a machine that slapped on a label.
It was enough to make the grandees of Johnnie Walker weep, but this workforce of 45 manages to churn out half a million litres of spirits a year with a standard 75cl bottle of whisky retailing for about £4.
The finished product certainly takes a bit of getting used to. The whisky smells rather like vodka, but its artificial peatiness grows on you after a few slurps. The vodka has a whiff of surgical spirit, but goes well enough with tonic, providing you can find some (for some reason, Pakistan is woefully short of tonic).
Afterwards, I asked my guide what his neighbours thought of his job. 'We don't tell people where we work,' he replied. Thanks to recession and increased religious fervour, Quetta distillery's sales are down by 40 per cent on last year. Many of the workers face redundancy and, any day now, they may find themselves under siege from a torch-bearing Taleban mob. The least we hacks can do is to support their heroic endeavours by pouring doubles.
Robert Hardman is a columnist and correspondent for the Daily Mail.