Distillerie Zottos & Co., Alexandrie
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United Distillery Group / Al-Ahram Beverages Company|
Like so much in Alexandria, the state-owned Egyptian Vineyards Co. is another fading remnant of the city's cosmopolitan past. In its glory days, the company produced most of Egypt's wine and spirits. Today, with its wine-producing arm Gianaclis amputated and headed for the selling block, the Egyptian Vineyards Co. stands alone, the sole licensed producer of hard liquor in Egypt. And like Gianaclis and Al Ahram Beverages Co. before it, this alcohol producer's days in the cozy state sector are numbered. Within two years, the Egyptian Vineyards Co., its name now a misnomer will be sold to a private investor. According to Mohammed Bakier, sector manager for privatization at the Holding Co. for Housing, Tourism & Cinema, if no one steps forward to take the whole thing, it will be sold in pieces, asset by asset.
These assets now consist of a single facility in Alexandria (and a complement of trucks): a distillation plant whose history mirrors that of Egypt's experiment with socialism as much as it does that of the city it calls home. The original plant, whose buildings still stand, was constructed in 1882, when Alexandria was a cosmopolitan entrep(tm)t of foreigners and private enterprise. The owners were Greek, and the product bore the name Zottos. Like its other liquor and wine producing counterparts Bolanachi, Gianaclis and Cassimatis the fortunes of the company rose and fell with the fortunes of the city around it. When nationalization came in 1963, the owners, like so many of the Greek inhabitants of Alexandria, packed up and left. The public sector moved in to fill their shoes.
Today the plant stands as a hodge-podge of different eras. There is the distant past, seen on the labels that still bear the names Zottos and Bolanachi (Bolanachi's equipment was moved to the original Zottos plant in 1996). The rows of aging casks and distillery vats date back to the pre-Nasser days. Then there is the recent past East German bottling machines and two-story high continuous distillers from the 1970s and 1980s themselves a museum for a dead economic ideology. Finally, there is the present: Egyptian workers struggling amid rotting machinery, still producing in the context of a centralized state system in which customers are not considered.
The factory is located along a dusty road in a tired industrial section of Alexandria. It's not that easy to find; the plant does not advertise its existence to its neighbors and the entrance is unmarked. The manager of the plant, who calls himself Mr. Mohib, was trained in France in the mid-1970s and seems out of place in today's Egypt of privatization and the quickening tempo of economic life.
Open and friendly to his visitor, Mohib enthusiastically displays the vast array of different liquors the plant produces: whisky, gin, vodka, rum, brandy and "zabib," the Egyptian equivalent of anise. Asked which liquor is the plant's specialty, Mohib is noncommittal. "That is a matter of individual taste," he said. "It also depends on the season, your temperament and the kind of food you are eating." The Egyptian Vineyards Co. isn't interested in developing a product that would seem native to Egypt, the way vodka is to Russia or rum to Jamaica. "We don't specialize like that," Mohib said. "We produce all types of liquor for all sorts of customers."
According to statistics, there are a lot of domestic liquor consumers out there. According to Bakier, the plant produces and sells 9 million bottles of liquor a year a total of 3.5 million liters. Annual revenues are LE 18 million, with profits totaling LE 5 million.
Where does all this liquor go? Not to the hotels, that's for sure; domestic liquor is kept out of the hands of tourists. According to Mohib, the liquor is shipped all over Egypt to small shops and bars, where local Egyptians can enjoy the pleasure of domestic spirits. Some of the retail activities can be seen in Cairo. In downscale bars and hotels, the shelves are full of domestic liquor: brandy, whiskey, scotch, zabib and other spirits, offered for prices as low as LE 30 per bottle, a tempting bargain in a country where imported hard liquor carries a 300 percent duty. These bars are usually frequented by lower-middle class Egyptians, although the managers insist that foreigners also come by to drink the domestic liquor.
And the prices are even cheaper at the small shops selling Egyptian Vineyards' products. Here the full array of liquors is displayed, in sizes ranging from a quarter to a full liter and for prices as low as LE 7 for a small bottle. The shops, like the factory in Alexandria, have an out-of-date socialist air to them everything is dusty, the labels on display look old and the salespeople rarely offer to help you find what you want. And traffic is light; customers that come in make quick, furtive purchases and are offered black plastic bags for the trip home a small concession to the conservative side of this Muslim country.
There are limits, however. Certain governorates do not accept the liquor. In Port Said, for example, and most of Upper Egypt, the local councils don't want it.
Back at the factory, the retail end seems to be an afterthought. Production goes on as ordered, with nothing by way of advertising or marketing surveys. Liquor-making begins with the fermentation vats. On this day, however, the vats are not fermenting yet. Ten-meter deep tubs are being moved into a courtyard where the fermentation will take place. "We used to get our raw products from Gianaclis," Mohib said. "Now we are alone and must do it ourselves." The raw products here consist of sugar-cane juice and molasses (used for rum), the dregs of grapes (used for bran-dies), and other agricultural products like fruit juices.
The next stage of the process is distillation. On one side of the factory sit enormous vat distillers boiling pots that date back to the earlier days of liquor-making (the type still used for home distillation). On the other side rise two 20 meter towers that stretch to the ceiling continuous distillers, a turnkey purchase from East Germany in the 1980s. In the middle stands a mangy dog, growling at the manager. A worker shoos him away, and we climb up to inspect the distilling machines. Inside, the mash is boiled to a temperature above 78.5oC but below 100oC to separate out the alcohol as steam to be recondensed.
After that the liquor goes to the bottling plant. The bottles, Mohib explained, come from another company, Nasr lilZuggag, and the labels are made by a small private printing press in Alexandria. Dominating the room is an enormous bottling machine from East Germany. It sits quietly in the center while workers fill bottles manually from a sink. At the manager's direction, the bottling machine is started and the factory roars to life. The clunky machinery seemed to work fairly well, save for a few odd bottles that are smashed amid the cycle of filling and capping.
The last stage is the storage and shipping room, an enormous warehouse filled with stacks of liquor cartons ready for shipment to "wet" governorates. Recent changes are evident on the cartons themselves: the old ones bear the label of "Gianaclis, Bolanachi, Zottos, and Cassimatis," while the new ones sport a simple Arabic label: "Egyptian Vineyards Co."
What lies ahead for this plant and its 70 employees? Will it be privatized, or is this the end of the line for this relic? The separation of Gianaclis from the rest of the Egyptian Vineyards Co. does not seem to bode well for the future of the plant. According to press reports, the idea behind the split was to make Gianaclis more presentable to potential investors by stripping off the company's more marginal hard-liquor activities. But the holding company seemed confident the plant would be sold within the next two years. "We are looking for an anchor investor," Bakier said. "Someone who will bring in new, modern technology."
Whether someone's willing to make that investment remains to be seen. Some businessmen are optimistic. "Egypt was once a whisky culture, before the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser," one industry executive said. "There's money to be made in this industry for an investor with the time and resources to turn the plant around." And with duties on imported liquor expected to continue to run high, there will remain a price-conscious niche market for domestic products. But potential investors shouldn't expect to have the niche to themselves. Al Ahram Beverages recently purchased an evaporator to boost the company's capacity to produce non-alcoholic beers. The evaporator, however, produces concentrated alcohol as a by-product, and a move by Al Ahram into the hard-liquor market can't be ruled out despite the noncommittal statements of company officials.
Egyptian Vineyards also will have to overcome the dark reputation of its past. The trick will be to find a way to convert its something-for-everyone facility, a holdover of import substitution, into something more modest something special to Egypt and its local agricultural products. For guidance, Egyptian Vineyards could look to the model set by its potential competitor. Al Ahram Beverages, once infamous for producing an often foul and smelly product, has improved and evened out the quality of the flagship Stella Local and is now churning out a light brown lager, Stella Premium. The taste and quality of this product is on par with many Western beers. Perhaps by focusing on one high-quality product, the Egyptian Vineyards Co. can do the same. Zabib Premium anyone?
Ethanol and methanol may be similar-sounding words, but there's nothing
Distilling liquor isn't like brewing beer. Screw up your home brew and it might smell skunky, taste putrid or even make you gag. One thing it won't do, though, is kill you. It's a different story with making booze. Miscalculate your heating temperatures and instead of making ethanol the grain alcohol that gives every liquor its punch you're making methanol, a poison.
Just ask Dr. Asim Badawi, who as chief physician for alcohol intoxication at Damardash Hospital sees the effects of alcohol poisoning first-hand. He's kept track of the cases at the hospital, but refused to divulge numbers. "That is a secret," he said. "We are preparing a report for the Ministry of Health, but you can't see it." At any rate, the numbers of Egyptians killed or blinded were substantial enough to prompt a public advertising campaign a few years ago.
Travel books warn visitors at all costs to avoid domestic liquor, whether produced legally by Egyptian Vineyards or illegally by one of the nation's many private illegal distillers. You've probably seen the products of the latter: Bottles that look suspiciously legitimate, until a closer glance reveals that that what appears to be Johnnie Walker whisky is actually Johnnie Talker, or Stolichnaya vodka, Stoli Wadi. Badawi said it's the illegal stills that are the primary cause of alcohol poisoning in Egypt. "They are really cheap and not hard to find in certain areas of Cairo," he said. "The people who run these stills make a small profit selling to the poor and we deal with the consequences."
Whether Egyptian Vineyards itself may be responsible for any poisoning cases is unknown. It's certainly been linked to the issue "Things were especially bad after President Mubarak's pilot drank our whisky and went blind," Raouf Abu Kila, a manager at the company, told the New York Times in 1994. But Egyptian Vineyards has tended to blame the bootleggers, who often sell home-brew in used brand-name bottles. The doctors, for their part, can't offer much in the way of tie-breaking. "People don't bring these bottles in when they get sick, as much as we would like them to," Badawi said. "They come in in a half-comatose state, and we have to treat them at once."
In a sense, this question is irrelevant. Egyptian liquor has a bad reputation and, deserved or not, Egyptian Vineyards' products have been lumped in with the rest. The real challenge to any investor willing to take on the company won't be producing ethanol rather than methanol, hardly a daunting task to legitimate distillers. Instead, it will be building a reputation for quality by convincing discriminating drinkers to consume what Egyptian Vineyards pumps out.
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eg1: D'Habitant; Zottos; Rhum; Produit de la canne a sucre; Distillerie Zottos & Co., Alexandrie