by Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown
Arrack, arak, raki, arkhi. It is confusing. These are not all the same spirit, and people have been getting them mixed up for as long as international travel has brought them to the attention of international travelers. Arak and raki are middle-eastern grape-based spirits flavoured with anise. Arkhi, from Mongolia, is distilled from koumis, fermented mare’s milk that is frequently described as one of the least-pleasant beverages ever consumed for pleasure. And arrack was once a Hindi umbrella-term for all distilled spirits: One intrepid explorer wrote, in 1825, “The natives call our gin, English arrack.”
But arrack is not all spirits. It is one very pleasant—and almost completely forgotten—liquor produced in India, Sri Lanka, Java, and the Philippines. Actually, it is a few spirits. Still confused? Read on.
Although its birth is lost in history, there is no doubt arrack is one of the world’s oldest distilled spirits. It predates Scotch and Irish whiskey. It predates gin and genever. After Marco Polo commented about it in his memoir Il Millione, it was brought to Russia by Genoese merchants a century before the Russians’ love of mead and beer was replaced with a taste for distilled spirits. In fact, it is the parent of vodka.
Arrack predates all of the New World spirits. The taste of rum and cachaça would never have come about if it hadn’t been for arrack. The same Genoese merchants who introduced the spirit to Russian nobility also invested in sugar cane production throughout the Canary Islands. Besides making sugar, they produced arrack instead of importing it for their growing list of customers. So arrack was also the parent of cachaça, which was the parent of rum, rhum agricole, and ron.
Produced on the island of Java, Batavia arrack is distilled from molasses and water, using dried cakes of red rice and botanicals that contain yeast and other fungi spores that trigger the fermentation process. This technique can be traced back thousands of years to China and even predates the birth of distillation. The fermented molasses mixture is then distilled in traditional pot stills. The Dutch East India Company, in 1619, laid claim to Java and renamed the capital city Batavia: A name it would hold until the Japanese occupation, in 1942, when it was titled Djakarta.
The Dutch found very willing consumers throughout Europe, especially in Britain and Sweden. Arrack was immensely popular, during the early 1700s, in London. Considered superior to Caribbean rum, arrack was a higher-priced option for tavern-goers whose preferred drink at the time was punch.
Punch was introduced from India to Britain, during the late 1500s, by sailors who were enamoured with its remarkable flavour and its base spirit, arrack. Testament to its popularity, a 1737 illustration of a proposed monument to notorious Covent Garden coffee house owner Tom King featured casks of arrack and brandy, but no gin. Arrack was the drink of those who could afford better than the basics.
When Britain took possession of Ceylon (now, Sri Lanka) in 1802, following the French Revolution, arrack distillation was long established both there and in Goa, India. Unlike Batavia arrack, this liquor was produced from toddy, the fermented juice of the coconut palm, extracted by cutting the flowers from the tree and hanging a bucket below the cut to gather the free-flowing sap. No yeast is added. In fact, the sap has to be gathered in the mornings. The heat of the day sparks the airborne yeast in the sap into action, turning it from slightly sweet, milky water to toddy—palm wine—in a matter of hours. (The name “toddy” derives from the Hindi word “taree”, and was mispronounced as “terry” for ages before the British settled on calling it toddy.)
Toddy production has changed little since Marco Polo first described it in Il Millione. Toddy tappers climb to the tops of towering palm trees on sweeping plantations in Sri Lanka’s “toddy belt”. Here, they cut the buds from the flower stems and lower full buckets of palm water to the ground before crossing by rope to the next tree. It would make no sense for them to go up and down each tree. So groups of up to a dozen palm trees are roped together allowing the tapper to tightrope walk between them, adding even more of a challenge than just swaying 100 feet above the ground gripping a machete. The toddy was once distilled strictly in pot stills, though column stills are now in use producing a much higher quality spirit.
The best-known drink recipe to include Batavia arrack is Swedish Punsch (aka: Caloric Punch, Arrack Punch). It has been for a few centuries, as documented by Pehr Osbeck, Olof Torén, and Carl Gustav Ekeberg, in their 1771 book A Voyage to China and the East Indies:
“It is known to almost every one how punch is made; but, that it may be observed for the future where it is made to its greatest perfection, I will mention the true proportion of its constituent parts*. To a quart of boiling water, half a pint of arrack is taken, to which one pound of sugar, and five or six lemons, or instead of them as many tamarinds as are necessary to give it the true acidity, are added: a nutmeg is likewise grated into it. The punch, which is made for the men in our ship was heated with red hot iron balls which were thrown into it. Those who can afford it, make punch a usual drink after dinner. While we stayed in China, we drunk it at dinner instead of wine which the company allowed the first table.
[* If the English reader should be inclined to smile at seeing a receipt for punch so gravely introduced, let him consider that it proves the simple and abstemious life of the Swedes, and how little they are acquainted with those luxuries so common to the rest of Europe.]”
The Swedish East India Company first imported Batavia arrack, in 1733, which became the toast of the nation with songs being written about it and university staff and students embracing it as part of the cultural life of the campuses. Due to this growing popularity, Swedish Punsch was commercially produced beginning in the 1840s and is still available today under numerous brand names.
Can’t find this liqueur? Erik Ellestad recently researched and crafted this Swedish Punsch recipe:
750 ml Batavia Arrack
1.5 litres El Dorado Rum
8 lemons, sliced thin and seeded
750 ml water
8 teaspoons loose black tea
2 crushed cardamom pods
4 cups sugar
Place the lemon slices, rum, and Batavia arrack in a large container, seal and steep for 6 hours. Steep the water, tea, and cardamom pods for 6 minutes, then strain. Add sugar and allow to cool. Strain the arrack mixture and blend with the tea. Bottle and allow to rest at least overnight.
So, why did such a popular spirit vanish? The first blow was taxation. By the early 1800s protectionist import taxes were levied against spirits imported from the east, giving an enormous advantage in Europe—then the world’s richest market—to Caribbean and American rum producers. The British East India Company went so far as to ban the transport of arrack on its ships except for consumption on board. Rum production grew exponentially, while arrack production gradually faded.
However, Harry Johnson, in his 1882 Bartenders’ Manual, did include Batavia arrack in his recipes for English Royal Punch, Hot Arrack Punch, and this fine Cold Ruby Punch:
1 litre Batavia arrack
1 litre ruby port
1.5 litres green tea
500 gr granulated sugar
Juice of 6 lemons
1/2 pineapple, cut into small slices
Dissolve the sugar into the tea and add other ingredients into a punch bowl. Serve iced.
During the Second World War, the Pacific theatre witnessed horrific battles, and most arrack production ceased. In some places, like in Goa, it disappeared completely. In Java, it nearly disappeared (exports were almost solely sold to China and Sweden), but has come streaming back onto the world market only in the last few years.
Despite the external pressures, it is odd that arrack disappeared. Polynesia and the East Indies provided the inspiration, during the 1930s, for Trader Vic and Don Beach to launch the Tiki craze that now thrives around the globe. Yet, those first tropical drinks that they experienced were far more likely made with arrack—Polynesian rum. (Caribbean rum was simply an available substitute when they were mixed in the United States.) In fact, combined with Puerto Rican rum, Trader Vic Bergeron included in his 1948 Bartender’s Guide an Arrack Cooler:
45 ml arrack
15 ml Puerto Rican rum
1 barspoon fresh lemon juice
2 dashes gomme syrup
Shakes ingredients over ice and strain into a goblet. Add a large piece of ice, fill with seltzer and top with a champagne float.
Now that arrack has once again emerged, it is important to understand the differences between the two primary styles (differences that make them less alike than vodka and gin, for example). Batavia Arrack is a heavy, funky uncle of dark rum. It is oily and unrefined, rich both in pleasant flavours and harsh impurities.
Ceylon Arrack, by contrast, is a remarkably refined, soft and subtle spirit. It has hints of Cognac and rum character and a wealth of delicate floral notes, and would likely run screaming from a glass of its coarse Batavian namesake. (This style is not to be confused with Philippine Lambanog, which is distilled from coconut palm sap, but has more in common with moonshine and is rarely seen outside of the Philippines.)
The appeal of Ceylon Arrack has spawned three designations. Premium Aged indicates that the spirit has been aged in Halmilla vats for up to 15 years. Premium Clear, which signifies that the unaged spirit has been distilled or filtered more than once to achieve a level of softness and smoothness. And Common indicates that the spirit has been blended with other neutral spirits used as filler.
Isn’t time you should become acquainted with this great grandfather of so many of our favourite spirits behind the bar?