Before sugar cane was planted in the Caribbean, before gin laid waste to London, even before the word “alcohol” was first used, people drank arrack. Yet in a modern world dominated by power-selling portfolios of vodka, gin, rum, brandy and whisky – one might ask; where is all the arrack?
The ancient Indo-Aryan text of Sanskrit, when formed around 1200BCE, supplied the base language for Hindustani, Bengali and Punjabi dialects of present day India, and it is here that the earliest references to arrack is found. So it’s old, really old. Today we write the word “a-r-r-a-c-k”, accurate to our modern English accentuation yet over the millennia since the words first use, it has been re-pronounced and re-written dependent on the literacy and language of the persons using it. And there were many. As with all references which predate modern literacy or even the printing press, it can be difficult to separate conjecture from fact. Here’s what we know…
Translated into “sweet juice” in Arabic, araq is also commonly written as araku, arika, arak or arac with philologers also linking an early etymology of the word to that of the Areca Palm (aka Arrack Tree) which is indigenous to the East Indies. The tree produces a nut by the same name which can be fermented into a low wine or chewed mixed with betel leaves or tobacco. Both forms are believed to have been imbibed for over 4 millennia as a medicinal and psychoactive stimulant. According to a 2011 article in the E-Journal of Dentistry, the Areca nut is the fourth most commonly used social drug in the world after nicotine, ethanol and caffeine. Early Sanskrit text backs up the practice of making wine from the Areca nut naming it either Thamboolasava or Gakanigraha. Today a spirit from this same wine is distilled into a medicine called Mritha Sanjivini Sura, prescribed by traditional Indian apothecaries to cure high fevers.
Since the words “alcohol” and “liquor” would not be coined until two millennia after the drink was first recorded, the word “arrack” (along with its different spellings and accents) became a popular term for any alcoholic beverage. With India’s close influence on the Spice Road trade routes that fed the Persian, Mongolian and Ottoman Empires, arrack (both in word and product) travelled and traded alongside the silks and spices of the time. As such the drink and its name became associated with the empires of the east until eventually emerging onto European shores with the first East India merchantman of the 16th century.
Arrack (in its various forms) remains today one of the most widely imbibed ardent spirits outside of Europe and the Americas. It’s absence on western shelves is largely attributed to the difficulty in defining its category. In central and Southern China, arrack is commonly made from rice while in Egypt it’s largely dates. In Mongolia it refers to a distillate from fermented milk, in Sri Lanka it’s largely made from the fermented sap of the coconut flower while in other small tropical countries it’s the sap of the Palmetto or Palmyra trees.
Of all of these styles of arrack, one of the most widely regarded is produced in Sri Lanka from a coconut tree wine known as toddy (aka tãri, tãḍi or taadi). When attempting to circumnavigate the globe in 1519-22, Ferdinand Magellan’s crew wrote of toddy when visiting Indonesia as did Marco Polo when returning from 17 years with the Tartars. Toddy is harvested from the unopened flower of the coconut tree which produces a naturally fermenting sap from inside a membrane called a spantha or spadix. When ripe, a fully mature tree can produce around three quarts of sap from each flower per day with approximately four-six trees equating to a standard 700ml bottle of arrack. The liquid will continue to naturally ferment for the three days after tapping unless distilled into an arrack within the first 24 hours. With the entire tapping and harvesting process only possible by hand, Sri Lankan arrack is truly an artisanal product.
A more unique style of arrack (aka arkhi, araku, arika or vina) is that of the Mongolians. Distilled from their national drink airag (aka koumiss – a traditional wine made from fermented mares milk) once distilled, the milk yields a mere one-tenth the alcohol of traditional fruit and grain spirits. Additionally since the milk has no vegetable ingredients, it is impossible for the fermentation to produce any methyl alcohol and so a single rough distillation is commonly enough. While airag which has undergone a second or third distillation can also be found for those requiring a purer and headier spirit, it was likened by one indigenous drinker as, “sport[ing] a taste as if a herd of goats had been marching through”.
“How sweet the draught our generous prince bestows, Arrack, than honey sweeter to the taste ; Come, let us drink, the sparkling liquor flows ! To cheer the silence of the boundless waste.” – Translation of verse from an early Mongol poem.
One of the biggest unspoken champions of arrack was that of the mighty Ottoman Empire, surprising when you take into consideration their strict Islamic dedication to temperance. To many Muslims, arrack was not regarded as haram (sinful) under the laws of Islam since it was only wine that was prohibited. As arrack was not made of grapes, it didn’t qualify. Ironically, arrack was closer to the wine of early Islamic prohibition than modern grape ferments since there is almost no evidence to the existence of grape wines in Mecca and Medina during the time of Muhammad but a surplus of wines produced from the palm dates busr and tamr. Regardless, the Ottomans had a deep love for araq and even produced a type in Constantinople which was distilled from the skins of grapes and infused with angelica and gum mastic.With arrack popularised amongst nations of the East, all that was needed for Europe to share in the revelry was a trade route linking the Indies with the West. On May 20th, 1498 Vasco da Gama of Portugal did exactly that and a period regarded by historians as the birth of the Modern world, began.
Spice merchants of the English, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese companies followed in the wake of Da Gama, frequenting the East Indies between the 17th and 18th centuries in search of adventure and wealth. While the latter was never assured, adventure and arrack were guaranteed with both easily discovered at ports of call throughout the Indies. English East India Company champion James Lancaster – when visiting Sultan Al-Uddin Shah of Sumatra – wrote of local drinking games involving “sub-aqua drinking bouts in which guests perched on low stools in a river while court butlers served generous beakers of arak“.
With the huge sums of money made by the might of the English and Dutch East India trade companies it was only a matter of time before barrels of arrack arrived back into the home ports of London and Amsterdam. Under the additional influence of the new coffee house culture of the later 17th century, the common servings of ale and mead made way for more spirituous tipples such as genever, brandy and arrack. And the most popular way to enjoy them all – punch.
Credited as becoming first popularised amongst the merchants and privateers of the English East India Company, punch is to the modern cocktail what wine is to brandy. Discovering both spices and arrack aplenty on their journeys, it is no surprise that a popular social drink evolved from the confined combination of all three. The etymology of the word “punch” further supports an East Indian origin with the Hindustani word for “five” written as paanstch. The relationship between punch and five was recorded by a young East India Company physician named John Fryer 1676;
“…at Nerule [outside Goa, India] is made the best Arach [sic] with which the English on this coast make that enervating Liquor called Paunch (which is Indostan for Five) from Five Ingredients”.
In 1644 an East India representative remembered only as Bennin, mentions an early punch named bouleponge made of “arrack, black sugar[molasses enriched sugar], juice of lemon, water, and a little muscadine [sweet wine]“. These same five base elements to which punch is defined (sweet, sour, strong, soft, spice) would ultimately help form the same base to which many of our modern cocktails apply – sugar, citrus, spirit, mixer and bitters. As for sailors, punch and arrack became as synonymous with their profession as wenches and scurvy.
Even Australia when first settled in 1788 granted license for any military man to freely accept trade in arrack and rum in exchange for their colonial services. Needless to say the new settlement of Sydney quickly degenerated into drunken anarchy with many of the population recorded as passing away from what was commonly known as “delirium tremens” – alcoholism.
By the early to mid 1700’s many an English coffee house became rebranded the punch house in line with the emerging popularity of the drink. One of London’s most popular venues was The London Coffee House and Punch House located on Ludgate Hill near St Pauls Cathedral. As described in The Daily Post-Boy in 1731, one could find, “..the finest and best old Arrack, [sic] Rum, and French Brandy is made into Punch” as well as, “Neat old Arrack, Rum, and French Brandy by wholesale on the most reasonable Terms”.
The much less sophisticated yet no less popular Tom Kings Coffee House of Covent Garden, London was as well known for its cheap servings of arrack as it was for even cheaper women. After Tom King died of alcoholism in 1739 a satirical etching depicted a monument to his passing showed his body resting on a plinth bordered by barrels of brandy and arrack.
With arrack from Southeast Asia widely regarded as a more premium spirit than that of gin or genever, it’s no surprise that the worlds first cocktail book written by Jerry Thomas in 1862 (How to Mix Drinks or the Bon Vivants Companion), contained a large number of arrack recipes such as the aptly named Arrack Punch and popular Ruby Punch (click here for full recipe).By the start of the following century, arrack was on the out and rum was on the in. While rum had been enjoyed by masses since the 1600s, it was never regarded a liquor of class until Caribbean distilleries began turning a healthy profit from the sale of rum as well as the cane. Tax was soon raised on the import of eastern spirits to protect English rum interests in the Caribbean and as such, arrack arrived into European ports less and less. By the time the column still was popularised by Aeneas Coffey in 1830 followed forty years later by the Phylloxera louse outbreak which decimated European wine and brandy crops, Europeans were now widely producing and selling their own spirits comprising primarily of gin and whisky.
Today arrack is slowly making a re-entry into western markets thanks to boutique spirits companies and wholesalers such as Alpenz and Mangrove. Two of the biggest brands championing this re-emergence come from the islands of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Java. Named for their old East Indian origins, brands Ceylon Arrack and Batavia-Arrack van Oosten are both great examples of the spirits heritage and diversity. Batavia Arrack is bottled at a heady 50% abv and distilled from a mix of 98% sugar cane to 2% Java Red Rice while Ceylon Arrack is bottled at 40% abv and distilled from the fermented sap of the coconut flower before gently maturing in Sri Lankan Halmilla hard wood. Both are spirits of exceptional quality which can be enjoyed either on the rocks or mixed.
Since its earliest reference in Indo-Aryan Sanskrit at the start of the Iron Age, arrack is now over 3200 years old. Arrack has influenced the creation of the worlds first mixed drink while fueling the colonists and adventurers who helped develop much of the modern world.
If that’s not worth charging a glass to, I don’t know what is.
- A Philosophical and Statistical History of the Inventions and Customs of Ancient and Modern Nations in the Manufacture and Use of Inebriating Liquors by Samuel Morewood – 1838
- Rockland Family Distillers: Ceylon Arrack – Website
- Ceylon Arrack: The brand in a nutshell, c/o Rockland Distillers – PDF
- Haus Alpenz: Importing for the adventurous palate – Website
- Distilleries Company of Sri Lanka PLC. – Website
- Encyclopedia of Islam: Wine in Islam by Prof. A.J. Wensinck – 2007
- Areca Nut: To chew or not to chew? E-Journal of Dentistry – by Ashok Lingappa, Deepika Nappalli and Sujatha GP – 2011
- All Mongolian Recipes: Mongol Arkhi – Blog