On a visit to Myanmar/Burma in late December I toured the region surrounding Inle Lake, well known for its spectacular beauty and villages on stilts. A boat trip to the southern reaches of the lake took us to a regional market and to several temple sites—and to a local distillery. We were welcomed by the owner, a man in his 30s who was in the third generation in his family to operate the business. He gave us a thorough description of the distilling process: outside in large metal vats about the size of garbage cans rice was cooked. The cooked rice was then transferred into the main distillery building, dirt floor and about 50 feet long with a thatch roof and woven bamboo walls. There the rice was mixed with yeast and allowed to ferment into rice wine in large pots. After several days these were heated and the steam moved through 10 foot pipes to pots filled with cool water. The distilled rice liquor then dripped into pitchers. This liquor in various strengths was then decanted into bottles labeled “Best Jungle Wine.” At the end of the tour we were offered a taste—quite good I thought. The establishment also had soft drinks, tea, beer, and the regional Burmese wine on offer. It was difficult to figure out how our visit, which involved the purchase of a couple of cups of tea, did much for his business or figured into the local tourism economy—although no doubt it did. Interestingly, the distiller made little effort to push sales of his Jungle Wine—which I would have happily purchased if I had had any opportunity to consume it. Our host made it quite clear that his level of production did not even entirely meet local demand—which was apparently considerable. Jungle Wine, in its various strengths, was used for parties and various religious observances and also in diluted form was regarded as a valuable medicine. The distiller assured me that his business was licensed and taxed. The fact that it had survived decades of repressive economic and political policies from the Burmese military regime was a clear testament to the owners’ determination—and the seemingly universal appeal of cheap liquor.
I would have happily spent more time sipping Jungle Wine and learning about the local alcohol economy, but my traveling companions were determined to expose me to more temples. The lakeshore and lake villages are studded with remarkable examples of religious architecture, but my mind kept wandering back to the distillery and to the larger question of the apparently very different history of local distilling enterprises in Africa—in particular in Nigeria (once like Burma a British colony).
In the 1920s the colonial authorities in southern Nigeria began to notice a perplexing rash of thefts of tubing from automobiles. It was not long before officials connected those thefts to an upsurge of illegal distilling. Local entrepreneurs, facing restrictions on purchases of the required equipment, sought ways around the rules, and ways around the costs. Within a few short years, a vibrant, unregulated and untaxed rural distilling industry had developed in Nigeria (and in neighboring Gold Coast/Ghana as well). As a consequence of the 1890 Brussels Convention (and successor agreements), the European powers had agreed to forbid distilling throughout tropical Africa and to severely restrict the import of hard liquor—through increasingly high import duties. By the late 1920s the combination of higher costs for imported liquor and reduced cash in the hands of consumers associated with the global economic depression had created an environment highly conducive to the development of a distilling industry. Predictably, the colonial regime was most concerned with the threat to authority that flagrant violation of the liquor ban seemed to represent—although there is little evidence that the distillers and liquor distributors and consumers saw it that way.
Ultimately, a new generation of colonial administrators sought to legalize and regulate this industry, as Nigeria entered the era of decolonization. But in the end, these “modernizing” officials were unwilling to face the certain wrath from the temperance and humanitarian lobbies that legalization would have inspired—leaving the task of legalization of this small-scale rural industry to their Nigerian successors. Yet in Nigeria today (and in contrast to Burma), rural distilling is no more legal than it was in the 1920s. Rather than legalize the existing cottage distilleries, Nigeria supported the development of major, internationally financed, distilleries—and of course moved aggressively to protect that new industry by repressing the rural independent distillers—who continue to operate in the legal shadows—surfacing in public view only occasionally when some noxious rotgut results in serious illness or even death. At the same time, sachets of cheap, industrially produced, Chelsea “London” Dry Gin are sold legally by hawkers in the streets. The simple narrative is that after independence the powerful Nigerian “gatekeeper” class sought to cash in as partners in the development of an industry financed by international capital—but as Dmitri van den Bersselaar’s important book, The King of Drinks (2007) there were limits to the power of capital and even kingpins of Nigerian business could not always dictate the tastes of drinkers.