Carousing with Carew!

By

Towheed Feroze

Once a matter of cloak and dagger, enjoying alcohol on social occasions has slowly but inexorably, become a part of cosmopolitan culture in Dhaka. While the number of connoisseurs of fine spirits is rising, the home grown Carew is also seeing a surge in popularity. Once a staple for jilted lovers, Carew products now adorn the shelves of upmarket hotels

If someone ever thought that drinking in Bangladesh is socially frowned upon then they only need to see the accounts of Carew and Co, Bangladesh Ltd, which has been showing consistent signs of profit for several years running.

The Carew factory in Darsana is the sole state owned distillery churning out a plethora of hard liquors and, kindly believe it, at one point also had a single malt. 

Really!! Yep, no fabrication there. If Isle of Islay malts are savoured for the peaty smell then Carew single malt could stand apart for their ‘burnt’ taste. 

I know, the right word should be smoky, but the truth is, the taste was that of something burnt.

Was it widely appreciated? Hmmmm, well, er, a bit difficult to answer but since it’s no longer in the market, you can guess the response.  

Drinkers or not, most people in Bangladesh know what Carew stands for and that’s because the local hooch has been immortalised as the poison for the spurned lover in movies, made in the first two decades after independence. 

Jilted lovers and depraved villains are still seen to drink alcohol on screen but with the phenomenal rise of film budgets, they are now spotted holding Scotch bottles or better known as ‘Foren maal.’

However, since this piece is all about ‘Deshi jinish’, we will stick to Carew and how it has managed to top sales and retain its allure. 

Drowning your sorrows in Carew

To go back to the earliest memories of Carew, a scene form a movie comes back in vivid detail: a dishevelled and distraught young man, walking unsteadily under the street light, holding, eh voila! A bottle of Carew! 

What’s his sorrow? The girl he loves is getting married to some rich dude! Aha, that is tragedy with a big T. Since one cannot foil the marriage or abduct the bride, what should one do? Easy, get a bottle, drink up and then let the world know of the pain. 

Thus the template of the dejected lover was born with Carew becoming an integral part of it. In pain, you don’t pour Macallan and savour it with blues playing in the back, you buy Carew to guzzle it down! 

The omnipresence of Carew in movies, although mostly in scenes of heartbreak, increased the attraction of the local brand. 

In real life, many young men also followed the celluloid scenes but not just to forget the pain but also for a quick ride to euphoria. 

To go back to the social creed of the past, although alcohol had always been available in Bangladesh, in the 70s and 80s, drinking habits were kept hush hush because of a very pronounced layer of puritanism. 

In greater society, the rather staid description of male decency went like this: ‘he is a very good boy and does not drink or smoke.’ 

Naturally, during marriage proposals, the fact that the groom had never touched alcohol was deemed a major selling point. 

Understandably, if it was found that prospective groom had the habit of drinking then his chances of marriage diminished greatly. 

In the films too, protagonists only drank when they were desolate and hardly when they got the woman in the end. 

Although Carew was the companion of choice for forlorn moments, in real life they were the spirit of choice, especially among people with a tight budget. 

The Mysterious Green Store 

For some odd reason, the shops which sold Carew were known as Green Stores. In reality, there was nothing green about them. A dimly lit room with sinister looking people sitting with empty shelves at the back. A bit surreal, really! A scene from Peter Greenaway film! The bottles were never exhibited. The low lighted shop amidst a row of brightly lighted ones looked very dodgy, which only made the journey to buy Carew ever more thrilling. 

The men sitting at the counter had the habit of measuring everyone who had the guts to walk up to ask for a bottle or two. Interestingly, all those who went to buy were the topics of hushed whispers from people in other shops. Come on, buying a bottle of Carew does not make one a criminal!

Anyway, where there’s a sense of something clandestine, there’s always trouble and this often came in the form of plainclothes law enforcers with the habit to stopping buyers who did not appear to be in need of alcohol simply for medicinal purposes. Right, I forgot to tell you, the rule in Bangladesh, which still stands, is that to buy and consume alcohol, one must have a permit, stating that you are in desperate need for some booze to sustain life. 

Jokes aside, you actually need a permit to even go and drink at a bar unless of course you are non Muslim.   

You could always say sheepishly, I am Adrian de Costa or Andrew Rozario while your student ID card reads: Md Mosharraf Hossain!

The permit rule is not strictly enforced and if you just say, brother, heart break, Carew solace needed, no one will detain you. 

Cheka to shobai khae! (Everyone has tasted some form of romantic mishap) 

Coming back to the Green Store, once the order was made and you passed their intent assessment, one of the shop attendants stooped down or went behind the empty shelves and came out with the bottle wrapped in a newspaper. The whole aura had a distinct louche flavour to it and the communication never went beyond two to three words. Here’s an example: 

You, looking right and left, asking in a suppressed tone: ki ase? (What’s available?)

Store keeper, looking straight at your eyes: Whisky, Rum, Brandy, Vodka! 

You, still looking away: Ekta Rum!

A little bit of history

Robert Russell Carew was a spirt specialist employed here during the 1850s and following the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, set up the distiller with the help of the British Army. After independence in 1971, this was nationalized by the government of Bangladesh. It pays tax to the Bangladesh government, has 200 distribution agents across the nation and is the biggest Ethanol producer in the country.

The Enduring love with Tsarina or Jorina  

In the first decades in Bangladesh’s history, the top product from Carew was its gin. Reportedly, the gin was exported overseas to be fed to race horses. The premier clubs in Dhaka sold them with the price ranging from Tk. 750 to Tk. 950, depending on the size. 

However, by the turn of the century, the popularity of the gin tumbled with a rising demand for the vodka called Tsarina. Over the years, Tsarina had evolved into Jorina, giving it a more Bengali flavour. When asked, a regular Carew drinker tells me: brother, Tsarina sounds so distant but Jorina has a desi endearment to it. 

With good reason, Jorina is the top seller in the market now. 

The other day, I was checking out the pool side bar of a renowned five star hotel in Dhaka. Within the rows of Absolut and Smirnoff there was the pride of Bangladesh – Jorina in all her glory. 

But those who are Carew drinkers, and there are quite a lot now a days, strongly feel that either the packaging has to improve or Carew should launch a premium line, featuring spirits in streamlined bottles tucked in wooded boxes. 

“Nepal has created a large local and international market with eye catching packaging for Bandipur and Old Durbar whisky,” says a whisky connoisseur, adding: “the same can be followed with an exclusive line of Carew products.”

The observation has logic because with a separate high end line, Carew can attract foreigners and compete in foreign markets. 

Are they good enough to make a mark overseas, one may rightfully ask, to which most Carew drinkers say: “these products are for those who are not looking for mellow, soothing feelings but for some real kicks.” 

These are for countries facing extreme cold, tells me another Carew enthusiast. 

“If I were the owner of Carew, I would introduce a Jorina Premium line,” he enthuses. 

Well, I am no marketing expert but some of what people told me seems to have logic. The rest is up to the government to decide. 

In 2024, Carew has come a long way from the celluloid scene where it was only a solace provider for the heart broken.

I do not see The Green Room anywhere now because buyers can easily get Carew bottles from more than 20 bars strewn across Dhaka city. 

While the drinking scene in Bangladesh, especially in the cities, has evolved with the stigma of the past being supplanted by tacit approval, Carew’s popularity is soaring.  

With an earnest request for responsible consumption, let’s pay tribute to Carew’s celluloid  sensation eloquently sung by the inimitable late Subir Nandi and lip synced by late veteran actor, Farooque Pathan, in the 70s song: Neshar Lateem Jheem Dhoreche! Chokher Tarae Rang Jomeche! 

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