The house liquor of the Muslim world

How Johnnie Walker Black became the favorite drink of the world's biggest religion.

Verse 4:43 of the Quran offers the kind of advice you might expect from a country song: don’t go to church drunk. The handful of mentions in the Quran of alcohol, generally referred to as wine made of grapes or date palm, are mostly disapproving, but not as straightforwardly as you might think. In the Quran, drinking is not strictly forbidden, but frowned on. It is in the Hadith — a series of aphorisms attributed to the prophet Muhammad — that alcohol is designated as forbidden, or haram, along with selling grapes to Christians and Jews.

Like the rules of any religion, this one may have ambiguous origins, but it has become conventional wisdom. Every Muslim knows you are not supposed to drink, just as you are not supposed to eat pork, or charge interest on a loan. But this does not stop all Muslims from drinking.

By means of an unscientific longitudinal survey of Muslim households I have conducted since childhood, I have observed a greater than zero quantity of wines and spirits sitting in cabinets and even on mantles. In my experience a particular pattern emerges, oriented around one particular bottle: the square, amber figure of Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky, with its diagonal seal and striding Scotsman embossed in its glass surface.

The British-Pakistani novelist Hanif Kureishi, who was born in London, noticed something like this during his first visit to Pakistan in the early 1980s, upon attending high-society parties in Karachi:

Every liberal in England knows you can be lashed for drinking in Pakistan. But as far as I could tell, none of this English-speaking international bourgeoisie would be lashed for anything. They all had their trusted bootleggers who negotiated the potholes of Karachi at high speed on disintegrating motorcycles, the hooch stashed on the back. Bad bootleggers passed a hot needle through the neck of your bottle and drew your whisky out. I once walked into a host's bathroom to see the bath full of floating whisky bottles being soaked to remove the labels, a servant sitting on a stool serenely poking at them with a stick.

This phenomenon often comes as a surprise to Westerners, but not to most Muslims, including me. I was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in a culturally Muslim family. My parents didn’t drink during my youth, although towards the end of his life, my father began to believe in the apocryphal British remedy of brandy for symptoms of minor ailments. As a child, I had always expected that I would never drink alcohol. I didn’t believe in god, but my family life was structured by elements of Islam the way most white American households are by Christianity. We didn’t eat bacon for breakfast, have a tree at Christmas, or drink. We didn’t pray either, but that never stopped anyone from putting up a Christmas tree.

As a teenager, though, I developed a fascination with, and a taste for, the specifically American drinking tradition of mixing cocktails, probably as a complementary outcome of my burgeoning interest in film noir and jazz. During summers home from college, I kept a personal bar in my closet, out of sight to avoid causing any visiting relatives discomfort. I will always choose any American rye or bourbon over the finest scotch whisky (the scotch kind is spelled without the “e,” and I have no control over that). But in the Muslim world Johnnie Walker Black, which sets you back less than $40 or 5,000 rupees (about $69), is the doyen of hearts and minds. Christopher Hitchens, who himself drank an ocean’s worth of the stuff over the course of his life, noted its prevalence in his travels, calling it “the favorite drink of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, as it is still the Palestinian Authority, and the Libyan dictatorship, and large branches of the Saudi Arabian Royal Family.”

I have long been curious how the Muslim world sustains not only a robust drinking culture, but a favorite libation. I asked Basim Usmani, the Pakistani-American bass player of the punk band The Kominas, if he agreed with my observation. He said Black Label was “a more important Western import than trains, so-called secularism, or ‘democracy.’” He told me it was a standby for “military brats” when he was growing up in Lahore, and a favorite of men of his father’s generation, don’t-ask-don’t-tell style. His own father didn’t drink, but had a decorative bottle containing a charpai, a kind of standing hammock, ship-in-a-bottle style.

Everyone drank in Pakistan, but it’s very class segmented what they drink. In general military families seemed into scotch, well-off retired generals, and so on. Through playing music, I met a lot of kids with backgrounds like that, and the cavalier attitude about alcohol seemed foreign, but it's very much the same mardaangi (machismo) as anywhere else — a love of whisky, Texas hold'em, that kind of thing.

As a concession to the rising religious right, Pakistan passed a ban on alcohol in the ’70s, which included an exception for foreigners and non-Muslims — a violation in spirit, if not in letter, of the ancient ban on grape-selling. This made it possible for Muslims to quietly access booze. This curiosity has become a go-to narrative detail for foreign journalists. In a 2009 New Yorker piece, Seymour Hersh recalled that in his visits to Pakistan that “military officers, politicians, and journalists routinely served Johnnie Walker Black during our talks, and drank it themselves.”

According to a 1989 Vanity Fair article, bottles of Black Label were spotted on the desks of Palestinian Liberation Organization authorities under its then-chairman, Yassar Arafat. In a memoir by a pseudonymous CIA spy, Know Thine Enemy, the author describes the “rock-solid Islamic core” of Turkish culture in the 1990s prevailing “even among the Ivy League-educated, who wore Italian and English suits, drank Johnnie Walker Black, spent their nights in Bosporus discotheques, and bemoaned the death of Istanbul’s Greek community.”

Many Muslims have somehow seen alcohol as compatible with a belief system forbidding it. This contradiction took human form in the very person of Johnny Walker, a mid-20th century Bollywood actor who was born Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi. He took on the name because he was known for his boisterous impersonation of a drunkard, though as an observant Muslim, he didn’t drink himself. He was given the name Johnny Walker, slightly misspelled, by the director Guru Dutt, who featured the actor as comic relief in his 1957 classic Pyaasa.

As with many cultural customs taken for granted, the rise of scotch may have been accidental, already underway by the time of Johnny Walker’s prominence in Hindi cinema. The real Johnnie Walker was a Scottish grocer in the 19th century, whose light, drinkable blended malt, combined with his family line’s business acumen, made his flagship liquor the quintessential scotch in Europe.

In his guidebook Single Malt, historian Clay Risen traces the global expansion of scotch to British wartime austerity. Whisky exports were a reliable source of revenue, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself personally demanded that his ministry of food “on no account reduce the amount of barley for whisky.” While he claimed that “it would seem improvident not to preserve this characteristic element of British ascendency,” he may have had an ulterior motive: he was himself a notorious swiller of scotch, with his own preference for Black Label.

I asked Risen how the stuff might have planted its flag in another hemisphere. He pointed out that companies distributing scotch, like United Distillers, “relied very heavily on exports to parts of the British empire, or countries where Britain had huge influence, including large parts of the Middle East.” By then, Johnnie Walker Black had already become one of the major brands in England. As Risen explained:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most of the consumption was by the colonial administrators, but the local middle class population would be very much in contact with the colonial world. So if you were a clerk in India, you probably worked very closely with British colonial officers, administrators, businesspeople, and you saw them drinking Johnnie Walker Black, or some kind of scotch. So that became the drink you aspired to drink.

The appeal, Risen suggested, is comparable to Jack Daniels — simultaneously iconic and inoffensive, but with the added benefit of imperial cultural capital. “Scotch, by default, has a global currency as a prestigious drink,” he said. “Cheap scotch is still scotch."

By the 1970s, as recounted in William L. Cleveland’s A History of the Modern Middle East, “The duty-free shops in the airports of even the most conservative Gulf states did a thriving business in packaged alcoholic beverages, and the presence of a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch in the sitting room became, for some, a symbol of middle-class success.”

In his youth, Basim Usmani experienced the results of this development. “Hash is popular among the urban poor, but alcohol seems more elevated socially,” he told me. “The middle classes and transplants from the villages to the city also drink, and are very precious about what brands of vodka or whiskey they are consuming, whether it came from Asia or the Middle East, duty-free or bootleg.” Kureishi noted that this has something to do with the imperial origins of the habit. “The colonized inevitably aspire to be like their colonizers — you wouldn't catch anyone of my uncle's generation with a joint in their mouth,” he writes.

Unfortunately, the secret permissiveness for alcohol in countries like Pakistan is accompanied by moralistic regulation. In 2016, a politician was stopped in traffic by police and a search of his car uncovered a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black. He claimed its illicit contents had been replaced with honey. In the days after footage of the search was broadcast on TV news, #BlackLabelHoney became a trending topic on Pakistani Twitter. “For Muslims in Pakistan, drinking alcohol is prohibited and talking about it is taboo,” the Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif said about the incident. “Drinking and denying it is the oldest cocktail in the country.”

The irony is that, like much of Western science, the process of making liquor owes something to the ancient Muslim world. Distillation, in particular the pot stills that were used to produce the earliest forms of scotch whisky, were developed in the Middle East. As Risen writes:

By the ninth century AD Egyptian Arabs were using a predecessor of the alembic, a form of a pot still, to distill alcohol for medicinal purposes…. As Muslims extended their political control into Europe, their cultural and technological prowess came with them; as their power receded, they left behind, like flotsam on the beach, things like the alembic pot still.

Risen told me that this history emerges from a shared origin of the medical and social functions of alcohol. "Back then, the distinction between what was consumed for pleasure and what was consumed for medicinal reasons was very foggy,” he said. “It's all wrapped up in the history of alchemy, of science bordering on sorcery.” (Fittingly, the word “alcohol” itself has Islamic origins, from the Arabic al-kuhul, meaning “powder” or “essence,” with the prefix “al” for “the.”)

The experience of drunkenness, prophetic dictates aside, has long had a role in Islamic culture. Metaphors of intoxication as an experience of the divine recur in Persian and Urdu poetry by canonical writers like Abu Nuwas, Hafiz, and Mirza Ghalib. Some of the most intriguing examples come from qawwali, the devotional music of sufi mysticism that emerged from the same epoch as the alembic pot still, which remains one of Pakistan’s great folk traditions.

The best-known proponent of the music is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose admirers and collaborators included Eddie Vedder and Peter Gabriel, but my personal favorite is Aziz Mian, an unruly eccentric (and heavy drinker) whose words were as profane as they were sacred. In the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, he is described as having “embraced the approach of the ‘quarrelsome Sufis’ of yore, who, in their peculiar states of mind, would hold brassy passionate dialogues with God, punctuated with a series of paradoxical questions.”

His song “Mein Sharabi” literally translates to “I Am an Alcoholic,” and describes an encounter with god as drinking an infinite series of cups of wine. (I can’t help but think of a country song again, by fellow heavy drinker George Jones: “Just one drink, just one more, and then another.”) Aziz wrote it in a moment of inspiration at a sufi shrine, lashing out against the kind of dogma that would forbid a whole swath of the range of human experience:

He who drinks in secret is a hypocrite
Drink without ceremony
Up ahead, a reckoning is coming
So drink without counting

Scotch, or alcohol generally, may not be for everyone. But the paradox of the Muslim world’s favorite whisky is one worth embracing, not repressing, for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

I’m neither a scotch drinker nor a believer, but I bought myself a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black for research purposes, and I’ve been working my way through it while writing this. It’s good. The smokiness isn’t my style, but it has that ineffable quality I love in a spirit: not quite sweet, bitter, sour, salty, or spicy, but somehow strong and flavorful nonetheless. For me, as a diasporic cultural Muslim, drinking it doesn’t make me feel more secular, but more Muslim. Drinking has to be against the rules for taking a drink to be breaking the rules. Only a Muslim can know how good that tastes.

Shuja Haider is a writer-at-large for The Outline.