A history of booze

Published October 15, 2013

Human beings have been producing and consuming alcohol since prehistoric times. In all cultures around the world alcohol has been used for recreational and medicinal purposes and sometimes in religious rites.

The earliest archeological record of alcohol production and consumption dates from around 7000 BC in the Henan province of Northern China. Chemical analyses done on certain clay pots from excavation sites have shown that they once contained a fermented beverage made from honey, rice and fruits.

The early Babylonians used to make both beer and wine and the famous Code of Hammurabi, which is one of the earliest written codes of Law in the world, includes a section pertaining to the ‘fair commerce of alcohol’.

The ancient Egyptians used to make at least 17 types of beer and 24 varieties of wine. The Egyptian god of death and the afterlife, Osiris himself, is credited with the invention of beer, which was also stored in vats and buried in tombs with the dead.

The Book of Proverbs of the Old Testament also mentions the use of alcohol.

In our part of the world, the earliest signs of alcohol production come from the Indus Valley Civilization, from whose ruins distillation vessels have been found. The Vedas also mention an alcoholic beverage called Sura, a fermented drink made from rice meal, sugarcane, honey and fruits. While Sura became the favored drink of the Kshatriya or warrior class, it was the mystical drink Soma that was reserved for the Brahmans or priests who would use it during certain Vedic rituals. Soma, also known as Haoma in the Avestic texts of ancient Persia, was probably not an alcoholic drink but one of euphoric or hallucinogenic nature.

The first known mention of grape based wines in the Subcontinent comes from the 4th Century writings of Chanakya Kautilya, the renowned royal adviser to the emperor Chandragupta Mauriya. In his writings, Chanakya condemns the use of alcohol while chronicling the emperor and his courts frequent indulgence of grape wine known as Madhu.

The first alcoholic beverage to reach widespread popularity in ancient Greece was Mead made from honey, but later wine became the favored drink of the ancient Greeks who used to mix it with water, as opposed to the ‘barbarians’ who would drink it neat. The Greeks had their own god of wine and grape harvest called Bachus, whose wine, music and ecstatic dance was said to free his followers from fear and subvert the restraints of the powerful.

The native populations of the Americas used to produce various alcoholic beverages from maize and honey. The most widespread technique used for fermenting the maize was to chew it in the mouth before spiting it out and laying it out to dry. Enzymes found in saliva would break down the starch into maltose, thereby releasing alcohol. This same technique of saliva-based fermentation was used in other pre-modern cultures as well, such as in the making of Sake or rice beer in ancient Japan.

Wherever there has been alcohol production and consumption, there have also been admonishments and warnings about its excessive use or drunkenness. Both the Buddha and Mahavir, the founder of the Jain religion, discouraged the use of alcohol, as did Shankaracharya, the great mystic and philosopher of Hinduism in the 9th Century.

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Though production and consumption of alcoholic beverages have been largely allowed in the Christian world (some of the best wines, beers and brandies of Medieval Europe were produced by monks in monasteries), and wine is also used a symbol to signify ‘the blood of Christ’ in communion services; many Christian orders forbid the use of alcohol. The great 15th Century reformer of Christianity, Martin Luther argued against this extreme position by saying,

Wine and women bring many a man to misery and make a fool of him, this does not mean you pour out all the wine and kill all the women!

The Quran discourages the use of alcohol in the following verse: “They ask you about intoxicants and gambling: say, ‘in them there is a gross sin and some benefits for the people, but their sinfulness far outweighs their benefit.” (2:219)

During the rule of most of the Muslim dynasties of the Delhi Sultanate, alcohol was mostly prohibited for state functionaries. Under the rule of the Mughal emperors, however, (except Aurangzeb Alamgir), it was enjoyed by many in the imperial courts, and trade of alcohol beverages was established with Europe.

Wine making and cultivation of vineyards was strongly encouraged by the Portuguese settlers in Goa and later by the British colonists in the rest of India, till the ‘phylloxera epidemic’ from Europe reached the subcontinent in the late 19th Century and destroyed most of the vineyards.

Mahatma Gandhi considered alcohol consumption as a great social evil and encouraged complete prohibition in India. After Partition many districts and some states of India tried to enforce a total ban on liquor. However, many Indian states refused prohibition laws because of the huge loss of excise revenue from the sale of alcohol (in 1964, alcohol accounted for 10 per cent of total state revenues and over one-third in the state of Punjab).

Prohibition was enacted in the United States from 1920 till 1933, which created the space for large crime syndicates to flourish and make their fortune through the ‘bootlegging’ of alcohol.

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Pakistan allowed the sale and consumption of alcohol for three decades until Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto introduced restrictions weeks before he was removed as Prime Minister in 1977. Though Bhutto, like many previous and subsequent rulers of Pakistan, used to enjoy his drink (and made no secret about it), he introduced prohibition laws in the country in a last bid effort to appease the religious right, but this did not save him from being toppled and later put to death by the reactionary forces of the country.

The famous Murree Brewery Company of Pakistan had been established by the British in 1860 near the hill resort of Murree. In the 1880s it established another brewery in Rawalpindi and a distillery in Quetta. Due to scarcity of water most of the brewing was transferred to Rawalpindi, but malting in Ghorha Gali continued till the property was sold in the 1940s. Murree Brewery suffered a major setback and had to scale down production when prohibition laws in Pakistan were enacted, which allowed only non-Muslims to purchase alcohol through special permits. Despite this it continues to produce several types of beer, vodka, whisky and gin, which it is allowed to sell through several legal outlets in the country.

In several rural districts of Pakistan, particularly in the mountainous regions, local people have been making homemade wines since centuries. ‘Hunza Water’ is the generic name given to a wide variety of local wines and spirits prepared from grapes, mulberries, apples and apricots in Gilgit Baltistan.

Since prohibition, there has also been a heavy increase of spurious and cheap alcohol production in the cities of Pakistan and every year several people die from consuming toxic liquor. Because of a lack of awareness several illegal manufacturers end up producing methanol alcohol due to wrong techniques of distillation.

Despite external appearances, wine or alcohol (Sharaab) has a huge place in the literary and popular culture of this land. There is no shortage of Ghazals and Kalaams sung and recited throughout Pakistan, which equate the feeling of intoxication induced by alcohol with the ‘inner intoxication’, which comes from the union with one’s beloved.

Today, alcohol is available legally in Pakistan for non-Muslims in liquor stores in Karachi, high-end hotels around the country and specialised outlets. Besides this foreigners who work in Pakistan have access to specialised warehouses where imported liquor is also available. But despite the ban on alcohol for Muslims, there is a huge segment of the population that consumes ‘bootlegged’ liquor all over Pakistan. Because of the taboo involved, there is not enough awareness about the dangers and benefits of alcohol and the black market industry is flourishing.

Since prehistoric times, no one has ever been able to enforce a complete prohibition on alcohol through the use of force. Perhaps, its time that Pakistan also started reconsidering whether to regulate an already existing industry and channelise much needed revenue into the state exchequer.

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