Afghan Moonshine a Growth Industry
Tougher restrictions on alcohol imports create boom for illicit local producers catering for surprising levels of consumer demand.
By Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi in northern Afghanistan
Institute for War & Peace Reporting
(ARR No. 299, 27-Aug-08)
The label may say “Stolichnaya” but the contents of this vodka bottle have never seen Russia. Instead, it is a potent local brew made from raisins, which is keeping many a party going in northern Afghanistan.
Pahlavan Omar – not his real name – owns a small distillery in the northern city of Shiberghan, where he produces alcohol along with his two young sons.
The distillery is not much to look at – just a few barrels, some sacks of raisins, a couple of pressure cookers and stoves.
But according to Pahlavan, business is booming.
“Over the past few months, our production has doubled and our customers are coming back,” he said.
Alcohol is forbidden by Islam, and the ban was strictly enforced when the hardline Taleban regime held sway in Afghanistan.
Neither religious precepts nor fundamentalist rulers stopped this illicit industry. Instead, what nearly put paid to it was the relaxation of restrictions on alcohol imports that followed the collapse of the Taleban regime in 2001.
“The Taleban would have hanged us if they had known about it, but we continued producing, although at a lower rate, when they were around,” said Pahlavan. “It was when Afghanistan opened its doors to foreign products and prices fell that we had to close down most of our distilleries.”
About two years ago, however, the Afghan government tightened the rules on alcohol imports, and the flow of foreign liquor dried up. Afghan tipplers once again had to seek out the local suppliers.
Pahlavan smiled broadly, saying, “The government was not trying to give our business a boost, but in any case it was a great help to us.”
He produces 20 litres of vodka a week in his small distillery. He buys leftover raisins from markets or wholesalers, paying about 500 afghani, some ten US dollars, for a 50-kilogram sack. He steeps them in water for about a week and brews up the resulting mixture in a pressure cooker. The steam is siphoned off and cools into the final product, raw spirit.
According to aficionados, Afghan moonshine contains a high percentage of alcohol – though quite how much is hard to determine, and differs from batch to batch. But consumers say it is more than enough to do the job.
“We produce about ten litres of alcohol from each barrel,” explained Pahlawan. “We package it in plastic bags and sell it to shops.”
The drink sells for about 500 afghani a litre, so that the return on each sack of raisins is about 5,000 afghani, or 100 US dollars – ten times the initial investment.
As Pahlavan’s business grows, he is selling more and more of his product wholesale to shopkeepers, even though this nets him only 400 afghani a litre.
Imaginative marketing can increase the returns. One entrepreneur in the northwestern town of Maimana imports empty Russian vodka bottles from Pakistan and uses them to make his product more attractive to customers.
“Afghanistan’s vodka is the best, but now people are used to these foreign bottles. We have to imitate them to make more money,” he said.
This producer sells his “vodka” for 1,000 afghani a bottle – about 20 dollars.
“The quality of our vodka is much higher than the foreign one. We were producing and drinking it when there was no foreign alcohol in Afghanistan,” he said.
Shopkeepers confirm that it is easier to sell the “Russian” brand.
“People don’t want to buy alcohol in plastic bags,” said one shopkeeper in Mazar-e-Sharif. “It makes no difference to us – we make twice as much in profits.”
The production, sale, and consumption of alcohol are forbidden by law in Afghanistan, and officials insist offenders will be punished.
But the producers appear unabashed – given the all-pervasive ubiquitous corruption in this country, it should not be hard to get police to look the other way.
General Khalilullah Aminzada, provincial police chief in Jowzjan province, said that his forces have closed down approximately ten distilleries since the beginning of 2008, and have jailed the offenders.
However, he acknowledged that there are many more that the authorities are unaware of.
“This is a major social problem,” he told IWPR. “This is nothing new – alcohol production has a very long history in Afghanistan. These problems will continue as long as societies exist, and our struggle against them will also continue.”
General Khalil Anderabi, the police chief for the neighbouring Faryab province, admitted that his region was home to numerous distilleries and that so far he has not been able to close a single one.
“We have recently learned that there are such establishments in the province,” he told IWPR. “It is against the law and we have a specific plan to shut them down, but they are very artful.”
Instead, said Anderabi, police in Faryab have concentrated on imported alcohol, confiscating about 1,200 bottles so far from shops.
“Now we will begin to battle these domestic producers, and we will stop them,” he said.
Although plentiful, alcohol is not on public display. A recent informal survey carried out by IWPR reporters showed that many shopkeepers will not sell to people they do not know, denying they have supplies even when they themselves are obviously inebriated.
Alcohol consumption is on the rise in northern Afghanistan, particularly among young men who use it to spice up parties or to dull the frustration of unemployment.
Mohammad Qais, from Shiberghan, works for an international organisation and is an avid consumer of homemade vodka.
“When we go on picnics on Fridays we always take a bottle or two,” he told IWPR. “Without alcohol we wouldn’t enjoy our parties.”
Others, however, frown on drinking as a violation of Islamic values.
Sadruddin, a taxi driver in Kabul, said, “Every day I pick up one or two passengers who are drunk. It was never like this in the past. Drinking alcohol is very common now. There are no parties without vodka.
“This is not a good thing. Young people should know that it is contrary to Islam.”
Religious scholars also condemn the practice, and warn that punishment awaits those who imbibe.
“If the alcohol user repents, God may forgive him,” said Qari Hayatullah, a religious scholar in Mazar-e-Sharif. “If not, he leaves the world a sinner, and he will be punished in the afterlife.”
In this life, though, the religious scholars cannot agree on the penalty for alcohol use.
“There is a difference of opinion among religious scholars as to the punishment for the producer and user of alcohol,” said Qari Hayatullah. “It is not like murder or adultery; the punishment is not specified.”
Under the Taleban, those who were caught using alcohol had their faces blackened with soot and were paraded around the city as a lesson to others.
Because of the continuing prohibition, some farmers restrict themselves to making alcohol only for their own consumption.
“I produce my own vodka, which is unique in all the world,” said one vineyard owner in Sar-e-Pul. “I don’t care about the high price of imported alcohol, or the restrictions on production and use. I make it because it’s delicious. I set aside the best grapes and produce enough alcohol to last a year. The taste of this homemade vodka is better than the best European alcohol.”
This man pointed out that aside from distilling vodka, wine-making is a centuries-old tradition that predates Islam in Afghanistan.
Many people age their vodka like whisky, to give it a deeper flavour. Besides, as the Afghan saying goes, “Old wine makes for a special kind of intoxication.”
Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.