Arrack is a spirit with ancient roots and is a term used to describe a wide range of spirits made across South East Asia. Arrack should not be confused with the Anise flavoured spirit Arak from the Middle Eastern World. Arrack can be made using coconut sap, molasses, grains, and fruits, either pot distilled, continuous distilled, or a combination of both. Some of them may even be aged in several different casks and vats.
It seems intimidating, worry not we will try and demystify this spirit for you. This is one of India’s traditional spirits and it’s only fair that we know a little more about it.
Arrack – What is it?
It is a distilled alcoholic beverage produced in India and South-East Asian Countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The word apparently originates from the Areca Nut from the Areca tree also known as the arrack tree whose sap was used to produce a spirit. However, Arrack has been used in Indian languages to all drinks which showed similar intoxicant properties.
It has been further classified on the basis of country of origin, which in turn generally use a particular ingredient for production. Ceylon Arrack originates from Sri Lanka and is made using fermented coconut sap also known as Toddy. Batavia Arrack originates from Indonesia and is predominantly made using Molasses.
Arrack has a rich history of export to and usage in European countries finding particular popularity in England, Sweden, and Finland. It is believed to have been the base for the much loved Indian Alcoholic Punch.
In countries like India and elsewhere Arrack has been banned due to a variety of reasons, leading it to be sold predominantly as moonshine. The ingredients used to make it are readily available with what seems to be a simple to execute production process. The moonshine distillation looks as simple as the setup shown below.
It is produced illegally, sold at a minimum price, and as such seen as a drink consumed by the lower-income classes. Moreover, if not produced carefully it has a polarizing funky taste, making mass acceptance even harder.
Arrack – How is it made?
For a spirit as versatile and differentiated, it is difficult to pinpoint a particular production process, with each distiller following their own set procedures of ingredients, fermentation, distillation, aging, and blending. While the Batavia version is a close cousin of rum, made using molasses it is differentiated through the use of the local red rice cakes to aid the fermentation process. This rice plus molasses fermentation gives it an absolutely unique and kind of funky flavour profile. It is often aged and blended after being exported to countries like Holland, etc.
The Ceylon version on the other hand is made from the coconut flower sap, locally known as toddy. Sri Lanka is the largest producer of the coconut sap Arrack and proudly claims it as a part of their heritage and culture. It is flourishing in all kinds of markets in Sri Lanka, from the lower end “Extra Special Arrack” all the way to Oak and Halmilla cask-aged premium Arracks.
Harvesting Toddy or the fermented coconut sap is an intricate and manual process. “Toddy Tappers” climb up coconut trees sometimes as high as 80ft to collect the sap. They cut the bud from the flower stem and start tapping it to encourage the sap out which is collected in receptacles, which are in turn emptied out into earthen clay pots tied to the toddy tapper’s waist.
It is an intricate and fine process, with each tree needing to be tapped daily. Moreover, the sap collected is rich in sugars, as a result, starts fermenting naturally at an incredibly quick pace, reaching almost 6% ABV in a matter of hours. The toddy has to be distilled the same day as it is harvested. Harvesting Toddy is not for the faint-hearted.
The high-quality Arrack is made using only this coconut sap and water. Lower quality ones usually see other fruits, grains, etc being added. It is generally distilled up to 60% ABV and diluted down to about 40% ABV. More often than not lower quality ones are spiked with other grain neutral spirits.
Some manufacturers have elevated Arrack production to an art form comparable to ” New World” spirits.
Arrack, the original clear spirit is now being converted into a brown spirit with 12-15-year-olds being common varieties in the premium segment. They are aged in choicest casks made from Oaks and Sri Lankan hardwood, Halmilla which imparts a unique flavour. Not only is it aged, but it is also tastefully blended by master blenders.
A well-produced, aged and blended Arrack has unique tropical notes and tastes like a cross between a good dark rum and a cognac. It has a complex multi-layered palate with floral notes and hints of coconut. It has a distinct depth of flavour even while being quite subtle and refined. It can be drunk neat or used in cocktails. It is the base spirit of one of the best sellers at Native Bar, Singapore.
Arrack: Premium Brands
As compared to other spirits, there are relatively fewer premium brands available to choose from. The Premium addition of Arrack is a recent addition. It was originally seen as a low-class drink, whilst international spirits like cognac, scotch, aged rums enjoyed popularity amongst the local elite. A few brands have elevated the art of Arrack into something that can stand it’s own against the best of the New World Spirits. Some of the brands include:-
- Ceylon Arrack
- VSOA White Lion
- Batavia Arrack van Oosten
You know what you need to grab or ask your friends to grab on the next Sri Lankan trip. It’s about time we taste and appreciate our heritage and culture. We can’t wait to get our hands on another bottle, once we all can start traveling again. Meanwhile, read here about Feni, the nation’s favourite spirit from Goa.