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Thirst for beer keeps brewery alive in dry Pakistan

The only brewery in Pakistan is a 150-year-old tradition.  Business is booming despite strict prohibition laws.  NBC's Amna Nawaz reports.     

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - Beer. Vodka. Whiskey.

These are not words you hear often in Pakistan, where it's illegal for the majority of the population to buy or drink alcohol.

But once you walk inside the gates of the Murree Brewery Company, it's all anyone wants to talk about.

We're greeted by the company's CEO, Isphanyar Bhandara - a man in constant motion - who is the third generation in his family to run the 150-year old company. In his office is an impressive display of bottles - lagers, flavored gins, matured whiskeys - the full product line of Murree Brewery, including non-alcoholic beers, fruit juices, and the latest addition - an energy drink called "Blitz."

"We're very proud of the fact that we're working in Pakistan," he says with a smile. "But you must remember, this brand - Murree Brewery - is much older than it's host."

A brewery that the British established in 1860 to ensure their soldiers were never without their favorite drink is now an unlikely institution in Pakistan, where Muslims are prohibited from purchasing or consuming alcohol. Legally, the company's only potential market is limited to Pakistan's non-Muslims - just three percent of the 180 million population.

And even for them, the actual process of legally buying alcohol is involved and tedious, with business conducted out of sight of the general public. The country's Christians, Hindus, and Zorastrians can obtain an alcohol license from the government. That license comes with a monthly quota. To buy a case of beer, or a bottle of vodka, they must stand in line at distribution points hidden behind hotels or other establishments, license in hand to prove they are not Muslim.

Murree Brewery is doing business with one hand tied behind its back. It's illegal for them to advertise their alcohol. It's illegal for them to export their alcohol. Still, it is alcohol sales that bring in 60 per cent of their revenues, which totaled just under $100 million dollars last year.

Running a successful business in Pakistan these days in hard enough. A lack of basic utilities, corruption within the law and order system, and the volatility of the Pakistani rupee are enough to keep any CEO awake at night. Bhandara shoulders the additional burden of running the only legal alcohol producer in a majority-Muslim country, where the conservative segment has grown more vocal and more influential with time.

"There are more heinous crimes going on, like honor killing, and throwing acid on people's faces, burying people alive," Bhandara says. "These things are considered in a lighter mode, that they are forgivable crimes. But having a beer is considered a non-forgivable crime!"

The truth in Pakistan that few will admit on the record, is that many Muslims do, in fact, regularly commit this "crime." The black market for alcohol is booming business, and the porous border makes for easy smuggling. The Pakistani elite serve wine at dinner parties in their homes. Pakistani men will end a long day at the office with a glass of whiskey. A bar table, hidden behind a curtain, is set up at weddings so that guests can enjoy a drink as they celebrate. But few are willing to do so openly, and potentially incur the wrath of the country's conservatives, whose power, Bhandara says "is increasing by the day."

"We like to keep a low profile," he says. "I think that's the best security."