Updated: Mar 29
Bartenders are usually massive history geeks & we spent countless hours searching for information on techniques, history & cocktail recipes. During my bartending career one of the things I've noticed is how rustic & raw production of some products we find on the back-bar is. Once you look beyond the beautiful label, the unique bottle & the guerrilla-marketing you find yourself stripped down to the bare bones. This can lead to fascination if you're into that sort of thing as you look into the finer details of production of spirits. That or complete boredom as every new distillery looks the same, smells the same & feels the same. Then comes along "Batavia Arrack"
I want to make things clear from the get-go. I've never been to a distillery in Indonesia that makes 'Arrack'. I've never been to Indonesia itself truth be told. Luckily though I spent 3 years living in Amsterdam, Netherlands which happens to be home to one of the biggest importers & blenders of sugarcane spirits in Europe - E.W. Scheer! These guys blend a whole bunch of known brands we all know & love but most importantly in this case is they are one of the few companies in the world with a direct line to Indonesia's Arrack producers.
Origins By the Dutch Arrack producers state that long before the Dutch first explored the Indonesian archipelago in the early seventeenth century, and before the United East Indies Company established Java as the centre of it’s trading empire, arrack was being produced in the region from (often) rice or palm leaves. The method of distillation has almost certainly been introduced by Arab traders, but it was Chinese sugar growers who developed the secret recipe by which molasses was fermented and then distilled to produce the arrack we know today. That recipe has been handed down from father to son. There are records with suggest that British traders started buying arrack from the Chinese distillers as long ago as 1634, while a Danish explorer describes seeing a huge number or arrack distilleries on Java in 1673. We know that there were twelve distilleries in and around Batavia in 1712, and at least twenty by 1778. In the eighteenth century, arrack became very populair in Europe, especially in Sweden as one of the main ingredients of Swedish punch.
In 1796, the French scholar, political and rum connoisseur Joseph-Francois Charpentier de Cossigny wrote that “l’araque de Batavia is of better quality than Jamaica rum, a fact that even the English must concede“. At this time, the trade in arrack was entirely in the hands of the Dutch VOC. Virtually all arrack exported to Europe arrived in Rotterdam or Amsterdam. The Dutch trade was dominated by a small number of specialist dealers, who imported “raw” arrack with an alcohol content between 60-70% in large wooden barrels or buts, each containing 563 liters. This would than be stored (laid down), allowed to mature and blended to create an end product of consistent quality and flavor. By 1910, the entire Dutch arrack trade was concentrated in Amsterdam. in 1927, the arrack specialists toned forces to form the Verenigde Arrack Verkopers (United Arrack Dealers).
What is it? The 'Art of Drink' describes that the spirit called “arrack” is a difficult spirit to locate in some regions, but for a cocktail enthusiast it is a very important ingredient to acquire. In the early days of cocktails it was a popular ingredient and was used frequently by the likes of Jerry Thomas and other cocktail pioneers. It is also important in that Arrack should not be confused with the middle eastern spirit called “;Arak”, which is an anise flavoured distillate, more similar to ouzo. Genuine arrack is made from palm sap and is closer in flavour to rum. Arrack is actually considered a type of rum by some people. The other thing that makes Arrack important is that it is used to make Swedish Punch, which is made from arrack, sugar and citrus fruit, and is used in a lot of classic cocktails.
What is the problem?
We know that Batavia arrack is made on the Indonesian island of Java from molasses and rice and that it’s shipped to the Netherlands, Indonesia’s former colonial ruler, where it’s aged and blended and bottled. But Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country and frowns increasingly deeply on alcohol. That means no visitors’ centres no “Batavia Arrack Experience,” no press trips, distillery visits or Instagram feeds. There are no pictures floating around of smiling locals tending gleaming stills and there’s no Batavia Arrack Marketing Board.
So you've got a highly religious Muslim country distilling one of the worlds oldest spirits & one which as claimed by David Wondrich 'The worlds first luxury spirit'. The Dutch East India Company was infamous for their monopoly on spices & the like but apparently Arrack was definitely something of a luxury too!
Original Recipe: Swedish punch / Arrack punch: (Three tumblers of punch.) Take 2 wine-glasses of Batavia Arrack (old) 3 wine-glasses of Jamaica rum Sweeten to taste with loaf-sugar dissolved in hot water Lemons and limes are also matter of palate, but two lemons are enough for the above quantity; put then an equal quantity of water—i.e., not five but six glasses to allow for the lemon juice, and you have three very pretty tumblers of punch.
We know its the worlds first luxury spirit & we know you can't go to see it. It's 'rum' but NOT rum. One can only hope as a bartender to be able to discover the truth in the future of this mysterious product!