“DATES, JAGGERY?” asked the grocer, offering the main ingredients for brewing palm wine. His customer bought both, tucking them away with his onions and lentils before disappearing down a narrow lane in a suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital.
On March 21st the government closed all bars and liquor shops as part of a series of restrictions to curb the spread of covid-19. The intention, it said, was to prevent “drink parties” at which the virus might spread and to reduce unnecessary shopping trips. Small wonder: when the government first began introducing countrywide measures to slow the spread of the disease, “wine shops”—ubiquitous small stores selling mainly beer and liquor—were mobbed (social distancing be damned) by customers frantically stocking up.
Since then, booze has been hard to get hold of. Supermarkets remain open, but few have a licence to sell alcohol. For a time, enterprising distributors arranged home deliveries, until the authorities made it clear that these were also banned. A black market sprang up, but sellers were hard to find and prices prohibitive. Bottles of “gal”, which is distilled from coconut-palm sap, were selling for almost three times its normal price of about 1,850 rupees ($9.75).
The obvious solution, although an illegal one, was home-brewing. Sri Lankans desperate for a tipple have been mixing everything from beets to pineapple with sugar, water and yeast, and leaving the cocktail to ferment. The result can be cloudy, fizzy and sickly sweet, but is at least mildly alcoholic. The more ambitious have been trying to distil these brews into something stronger. One home-distiller describes fending off inquiries from the man who delivers cooking-gas canisters, who wants to know why his consumption has shot up. The next wave of hospital admissions, a common joke runs, won’t be victims of the virus, but of alcohol poisoning.
The police have set up five special units to hunt for moonshine distilleries. On April 13th officials arrested two men making liquor in 36 barrels in a swamp. Home-brewers are harder to catch. The government has asked the telecoms regulator to find some way to stem the sharing of recipes and YouTube tutorials on social media. Police have vowed to prosecute anyone who promotes home-brewing. “They are using Grade Six science knowledge to manufacture alcohol at home,” complains Kapila Kumarasinghe, a spokesman for the excise department. All the same, he admits, “We can’t very well go house to house, raiding kitchens.”
Happily, he won’t have to. The government recently announced that liquor stores may reopen this week, provided customers keep their distance from one another. Perhaps Sri Lanka’s leaders felt in need of a drink themselves.