Islam notwithstanding, sipping booze in Morocco is not impossible. It just feels that way sometimes.
By Joshua M. Bernstein
As a journalist whose beats are beer and booze (i.e., a professional drunk), I spend most eves nose-deep in a pint, then pass the daylight hours by writing about last night’s bender. It’s a lovely, well-lubricated existence, provided I have a steady supply of aspirin.
Thus, when my girlfriend, Jenene, and I go on vacation, we select cities with great drinking cultures—say, microbrew-mad Montreal or winesipping Paris. “Work is pleasure, and pleasure is work,” I’ll explain, buying flights before she can protest. But last summer, Jenene wanted to visit a country that’d make any drinker cringe: Morocco, where Islamic law has declared alcohol haram, or forbidden.
“Baby, this sounds like hell,” I protested of her planned ten-day trip. “I haven’t gone three days without a drink since I was 18.”
“You could stand to sober up.”
“I’ve always dreamed of going to Morocco,” she said, her forceful tone making it clear the issue wasn’t debatable. “I invited Bati and Emily”—our married Parisian pals—“and they’re going to meet us in Marrakech. Book the flights.” I did as I was told, then secreted a flask of potent, peppery Rittenhouse Rye in my suitcase. Inside the hot, dry land, at least I could stay a little wet.
We touched down in Marrakech one Saturday around 4 P.M., with the temperature cresting triple digits. After checking in and meeting up with Bati and Emily, we departed to Djemaa el Fna. Come dusk, the Moroccan metropolis’s central square brims with snake charmers, henna artists, and makeshift food vendors hawking everything from diced lamb face to snails to sizzling Merguez sausage.
“I’d kill for a beer,” I told Bati, snacking on a spongy, fatty chunk of lamb udder—another local delicacy.
“We should be able to find some,” he said, pointing to his Lonely Planet guidebook. My eyes bulged like a cartoon character’s. “Didn’t you read the guidebook?” No, I’d spent the flight in a pharmaceutically assisted slumber. Bati sighed. French colonialists, he explained, introduced brewing and winemaking to Morocco in the twentieth century. Drinking culture took root, aided by a nifty loophole that permits non-Muslim tourists—and less pious Moroccans—to purchase alcohol. But it wasn’t as simple as hitting a 7-Eleven. Unlike ad-splashed American liquor stores, Moroccan alcohol shops keep their consumables hidden behind curtains and blacked-out windows, with nary a neon sign.
“There’s beer here—we just have to know where to look,” Bati proclaimed. Easier said than done. We spent hours scouring Marrakech’s storefronts until salvation arrived in urgent whispers. “Beer wine, beer wine,” a skinny man hissed, like a dodgy drug dealer.
Our eyes locked. I nodded. Like bloodhounds, we followed him as he quick-stepped down cramped alleys and past rug vendors to the Dar Nejjarine restaurant. We climbed a windy staircase to the rooftop where, beneath a starry blanket, musicians strummed string instruments and backlit whiskey bottles glowed like heaven. We settled onto embroidered pillows and ordered local brew Flag Speciale, served aside tangy olives.
“Now this feels like vacation,” Bati said as we sipped the light, bubbly forbidden fruit. Forbidden fruit, as everyone knows, always tastes sweetest.
Was scoring alcohol always such a cloak-and-dagger operation? No; our quartet discovered that serendipity also plays a role when we rented a car at Marrakech’s Avis outpost—located doors from a corner shop that, to our surprise, sold wine and liquor. Inside the cramped closet, we bought Taounate anise liqueur and a cabernet rouge Cuvee de President, which we took to the mountain town of Aït Benhaddou.
At the airy hotel Defat Kasbah, our waiter, Hashid, happily uncorked our wine, a young, minerally red. “I do not drink alcohol,” he professed, echoing a common sentiment, “but I don’t care if you do.” We capped off dinner with the anise liqueur, warming and aromatic. From the mountains, we buzzed west to the Atlantic coast fishing town of Essaouira and, on our hotel concierge’s tip, had dinner at the alcohol-serving Les Alizes Mogador. To accompany the sardine and goat tagines, we split Morocco’s Bonassia cabernet sauvignon. Unfortunately, the wine was tinny and lacked complexity, a recurring problem with Moroccan vintages.
Before departing, we tried to find a liquor store amid the mess of mint sellers and olive vendors. After a fruitless hour, we gave in and let a guide locate the shop where we should’ve expected it—outside the walled city, in an unmarked tiled storefront. After purchasing more wine and smoky, potent fig eau-devie (brandy), we cruised to seafaring Oualidia’s Restaurant Les Roches—“the Rocks,” referencing the nearby craggy formations.
As we sat in the restaurant, empty save for a singing parakeet, we asked if we could uncork some wine. “If you wish,” the mustachioed owner replied. While he loaded a bucket with ice and played Bob Dylan records, I retrieved our wine from our lodgings, located at a second-rate tennis club. “Don’t let anyone see you bring that in,” the night attendant said. “The owner could get into trouble with the police.” Heeding his warning, I snuck in with ninja stealth.
The police left us alone as we feasted on citrus-tinged goat and fish, paired with Ksar rouge—a plummy, pleasant Les Celliers de Meknes offering—and La Gazelle de Mogador, a sweet, if innocuous white. It was a serene eve, contrasting our experience in Casablanca the next night. Humphrey Bogart’s famous Atlantic Ocean–fronting city is crowded and chaotic, with traffic-jam exhaust covering the town like a filthy blanket. But the silver lining: Outside the walled medina quarter, numerous mirrored storefronts housed shabby saloons, such as Bar Sans Pareil.
The smoky dive, the sort found in faded Midwest factory towns, was cleaved in half by a rickety wooden divider. Molelike burn marks pockmarked red plastic tablecloths, and every man—and several luridly painted ladies, whom Jenene swore were prostitutes—guzzled green bottles of cheap-as-water Stork. We followed suit, sipping the light lager and snacking on freshly boiled chickpeas sprinkled with cumin and salt—a bar nibble worth transplanting to the States. No snacks, much less bars or booze, were found at our last stop in medieval Fes. Alcohol’s absence was especially glaring, since festivities were expected.
“How can I celebrate my 30th birthday without a drink?” Bati bemoaned as we wandered the twelfth-century city’s streets, as narrow and winding as The Shining’s hedge maze. We found tanneries and chicken butchers, but not a single warm beer. As Bati moped, a brainstorm struck: Concealed in my suitcase was my last-gasp flask. “Back to the hotel,” I commanded. I purchased a fistful of fresh mint from a street vendor, then sparkling water from a corner shop.
In our room, I produced the silver flagon. Bati’s eyes lit up like Christmas. I muddled the mint, topped it with amber whiskey and bubbly water—a makeshift mint julep. “Happy birthday,” I told Bati, as we toasted to a taste of home far away.