The Curious History of an Early Spirit
It went like this, but wasn’t. Some four thousand years ago in Mespotamia, the perfumers at the court of King Zimrilim created a technique to separate the essential oils of precious woods and flowers from the woods and flowers themselves in order to embalm their dead. Originally, this probably involved soaking flower petals in warm water and capturing the fragrant oils that rose to the surface. What they called this method is lost, but other cultures refined their work into the art and science now known as distillation.
Many ancient scientists ran up against this phenomenon. In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle realized that seawater could be made drinkable by distillation, and that the process could be applied to wine and other liquids, though there is no record of his actually distilling wine. To the ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks, distillation must have seemed like magic, and their knowledge was guarded from unknowing eyes.
A major advancement in distilling came between the 3rd and 4th century CE with the invention of the alembic (from the Greek ambix – a cup, typically made of glass) by Zosimos of Panopolis, an Egyptian. Having two vessels, one with the liquid to be distilled and one to catch condensed vapors with a tube running between them gave much more control and finesse to this delicate process. With a few modifications, this device is now known as a pot still.
During the Golden Age of Islam (roughly spanning the years from the 9th century to the 13th), much of the older knowledge of the Greeks and Romans came to be translated and advanced significantly. While Islam forbade drinking alcohol, scientists like Avicenna looked into the ancient arts known to the Greeks as kimia – the magical knowledge of the land of Kemet, or as we know it, Egypt. Kimia became known as al-kimia, or alchemy, and distillation was at its heart. Wine could be converted into an essence that had magical, medicinal properties. This clear liquid, collected by scientists drip by drip, was called “juice” or “sweat” – arak.
Due to the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East, many cultures have a distilled drink called something like arak: In Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and Israel, arak is usually unaged grape brandy flavored with aniseed during the second or third distillation so that it louches* in water. In Turkey, a drink like this is called raki. In Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and Georgia, aragh is unflavored and more like vodka. And in Java and Sri Lanka, this word becomes arrack – still unflavored, but now made from sugarcane or coconut sap.
Interestingly enough, people in the East Indies probably learned distillation techniques not from the Middle East, but from China, where by the 9th century BCE, distillation was being carried out on rice wine. These stills are not tall and swan-necked, but shorter, with a pan of cold water to encourage condensation at their tops. Some producers on Java still use them.
In his book “Punch”, David Wondrich tells the story of an early encounter with native distillation – that in 1521, Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Phillipines on the island of Palawan. With him was Antonio Pigafetta, a wealthy Venetian turned sailor who chronicled Magellan’s voyage. In his journals, Pigafetta noted that “the natives drank both distilled palm wine and distilled rice wine… the latter being the stronger and better” (pg. 27). He also mentioned that the local name for this hootch was arach.
Arak, this ur-word for the end result of distillation, can be divided into two main types: a grape brandy based, aniseed flavored version called arak or raki that is drunk with water, is clear before the water addition, and about 80 proof. This originated in the Levant and is mainly drunk there.
The second type is called arrack and can be divided into two categories: Batavia Arrack from the island of Java, which is made from molasses with a small addition of red rice, distilled in Chinese style pot stills, and aged in large teak vats for a while. This is the stuff of Jerry Thomas, who had recipes for “rack punch”, but it fell out of fashion and ceased being imported into the United States some time before Prohibition.
The spread of British colonies to the Far East in the early 17th century brought arrack to new markets. This was in an age before the capture of Jamaica and the introduction of the rum ration aboard Navy ships, but smart captains stocked spirits for long sea voyages, as they would not spoil as beer or wine so often did. Once they established a foothold in India, the local spirits were adapted to familiar uses, which at that time meant punch.
The rise of punch as a social drink brought with it a serious demand for arrack, and considering it had to come via ship from quite a long distance, arrack was not cheap. Wondrich mentions that in 1730, Henry Fielding wrote that rum or brandy cost about six shillings a quart, but that arrack was eight. While Fielding was writing fiction at the time, Wondrich assures us that this was actually the prevailing cost of the stuff, and as an aside mentions that eight shillings was effectively $250 in today’s money as a percentage of a yearly wage.
The decline of arrack as an English drink came in the early 19th century. Domestic Jamaican rum producers lobbied and got a tax increase on imported arrack. Between this and the decline of punch, arrack became hard to find. Jerry Thomas has a few recipes for arrack punch, but by 1869, William Terrington, in “Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks” includes a recipe for “Mock Arrack, or Vauxhall Nectar” which was a Jamaican rum base flavored with benzoin (a resin that smells like the perfume component amber and vanilla) and pineapple, then had milk added to it, presumably for body and sweetness. Terrington at least praises the quality of arrack, mentioning that it’s a generic term for “all the spirits made in the East”, that it’s made from coconuts, and that Java and China produce the best examples.
Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz has resurrected Batavia Arrack, importing the van Oosten label from Java. It’s clear and 100 proof with just two percent Javanese red rice, and it’s not for the faint of heart. There’s a definite hogo note (think about Wray & Nephew overproof or La Favorite Blanc – funky!), but underneath that a green/cardamom aroma and a buttery-oily richness that’s a bit much sipped neat, but this feral beast is a great catalyst for punches, where even a small amount cuts through lemon, green tea or nutmeg.
Make an oleo-saccharum: in a bowl, muddle lemon peel and black sugar hard to release oils, cover with plastic wrap and place somewhere warm for an hour. Add the tea and stir to dissolve the sugar. Let this cool, strain out the peels, then add the remaining ingredients, which should make about 25 ounces of punch. Strain this into a bottle and refrigerate, garnishing with nutmeg for service
This is a fairly simple punch based on the classic Wondrich recipe, but scaled down to make about 25 ounces. It’s what I imagine those earliest punches were like: local spirit and local sugar, but the addition of green tea gives this a depth and reinforces the green notes of the Batavia Arrack. It’s quite pleasant and easy at first, but the finish is tenacious – oily and funky.
The other style of arrack is just as old as the one from Java, but is entirely different. In the late 13th century, Marco Polo described a sort of wine made from palm trees on the island of Sumatra that was called “toddy.” Whether or not it was distilled at that time is unknown, but the technology was surely available in that part of the world, either from the Chinese or the Middle East.
To make this style of arrack, which is typically called “coconut arrack” or “palm arrack”, people climb coconut palms and cut slits into the unopened flower buds high atop the trees. Small buckets are placed under the flowers and the watery sap is collected. A quick native fermentation happens (usually taking no more than an hour or two), and the resulting palm wine is pooled and distilled in a combination of pot and column stills. Historically, this type of arrack was bottled a bit underproof.
The bottle of White Lion VSOA I received from their US importer is 73.6 proof (which is evidently the traditional strength), aged in vats made of a local wood called halmilla, and colored a warm medium brown with caramel coloring. It’s mildly sweet smelling, with a sweet-floral coconut topnote and a bit of hogo. It’s round and soft, and tastes of burnt sugar – not from the coloring matter, but from the slight scorching of the coconut sugars in the base wine. If pressed, I would say this is much more like a sweety Guatemalan rum like Montecristo 12. It’s certainly pleasant to sip on, but be careful mixing with it – big flavors will overpower the delicate floral sweetness.
Because the coconut arrack is much more delicate, I wanted to pull out flavor components and accentuate them with like aromas. There’s a lot of creamy/buttery notes here, and both the Imbue (which is Pinot Gris based) and the pear eau de vie are strongly creamy and floral, the piloncillo syrup reinforces the coconutty sweetness, and building it as a scaffa – without ice or further dilution – makes this more spirit forward and preserves the aromatic intensity of the arrack at room temperature. The bitters, with their oily violet-orris root scent push the floral notes of the arrack and Imbue forward.
Most interesting to me is how different these two spirits are. They don’t compete with one another, and you should have both in your liquor cabinet, especially if you’re a rum aficionado. While Batavia Arrack is relatively available in the United States – at least the van Oosten brand, thanks to Eric Seed – finding coconut arrack is much more difficult. Hopefully the spirit revival going on in this country increases demand for such an interesting and historical product.
* Louche is the process of the anise compounds dropping out of the alcohol solution as water is added. Louche comes from the French for, literally, squinting or cross-eyed, meaning of questionable taste or decency, or decadence – a charming word for absinthe’s odd behavior. – Editor
Author’s disclosure: I work for the Oregon distributor for Haus Alpenz, but bought the bottle of Batavia Arrack van Oosten for this article. I received a sample bottle of the White Lion VSOA from their US importer.