Reinventing an old spirit with a bad reputation

DENPASAR, Indonesia – Ask people who have vacationed in Bali about arrack – a colorless alcoholic drink traditionally made in backyard distilleries – and you’ll hear stories of drinkers getting sick, going blind and sometimes even dying after frequenting cheap bars that replace arak with spirits imported to increase profits.

“There have been a number of deaths and serious illnesses of residents and foreigners in Indonesia caused by the consumption of alcoholic beverages contaminated with methanol. There have also been cases of methanol poisoning while drinking. adulterated arak, “warns the British government. Advice for foreign travelers.

“Outside of reputable bars and resorts, it’s best to avoid buying arak, the locally produced alcohol made from rice or palm trees,” advises Lonely Planet. “It may contain toxic methanol, which is produced during the fermentation process and is not always burned.”

Many Indonesians also hold a negative perception of arak, which is haram (prohibited) to Muslims but sold in plastic bags nationwide for as little as $ 1. “The younger generation see arak as a cheap way to get drunk while the older generations see it as dirty or bad because of religious stigma,” says Kevindra Soemantri, a food writer who recounted the Indonesian episode. from the Netflix series “Street Food”.

“Arak is a cultural product of Indonesia, there’s no denying it,” Soemantri said. “Actually, the word is a bit new, adopted from the Middle East. Traditionally, we call it tuak; There are inscriptions on stones about tuak making in Indonesia that date back to the 14th century.

Karusotju, a new premium arak made from yams, has a flavor profile that resembles a blend of whiskey and brandy. (Ian Neubauer)

“Going back even further, Chinese explorers who sailed to Java in the 7th century wrote about their experience drinking an alcoholic beverage made from palm sap. So, if we love Indonesian cuisine, why can’t we embrace arak as part of our heritage? If we did, I think people would understand how to responsibly profit from it. “

A small but growing number of arak enthusiasts in Bali are doing just that: reinventing arak in the image of premium Scotch whiskey and Kentucky bourbon by producing flavored artisan arak, inventing new cocktails. arak base and opening arak cellars offering high-end versions of alcoholic drinks that sell for up to $ 70 a bottle or serve as the base for exotic cocktails in bars that sell for up to $ 20 glass.

Among the new generation of enthusiasts is Alisjahbana Haliman, a scientist and food exporter who has been selling vanilla and other Indonesian products to the United States since the 1980s. Five years ago, he founded Karusotju, an artisanal brand. arak based on yams with a “burnt liquor” distillation process borrowed from shochu – an alcoholic drink from Japan – and a barrel aging technique popularized by the French.

Karusotju is sold to Talasi Estate – a coffee plantation, chocolatier, and distillery in the foothills of Mount Batukaru in western Bali. (Ian Neubauer)

“For many years I have visited wineries in places like Napa [ a winemaking district of California] and Bordeaux [France] and was amazed by the quality of their products; it inspired me to create our own very special spirit, ”said Haliman. “We can’t make good wine in Indonesia because it’s too hot to grow grapes here, but we have a long tradition of making arak. This is how the idea of ​​Karusotju was born. It’s elegant, it’s original, a top-of-the-range product well balanced in terms of sensation in the mouth and on the nose. “

Karusotju comes in two grape varieties designated by their alcohol content: Karu 18, which is aimed at young consumers and is no different from Japanese sake; and Karu 38, a stronger blend aimed at more mature drinkers that looks like a blend of whiskey and brandy. They are sold online for $ 38 and $ 58 respectively, at luxury resorts and other vendors in Bali and at Talasi Estate, a coffee plantation, chocolate maker and distillery at the foot of Mount Batukaru in western Bali. The company has not released data on sales, which have been hampered by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism.

The Four Seasons Resort Bali hotel in Jimbaran Bay, near the island’s international airport, also took the arak bandwagon with Telu, an outdoor herb garden and wine cellar. arak which started its activities in April. There, customers learn about the history and medicinal benefits of arak and see how it is matured in clay pots and infused with local herbs like Galangal, Bali limes, chili, ginger or mint. Then they go behind the bar and try their hand at mixing cocktails such as arakoni, made with arak gin, arak amaro and arak vermouth.

Above: Arak is traditionally distilled in clay pots at Telu, a new winery at Four Seasons Resort Bali in Jimbaran Bay. Below: the resort’s outdoor herb garden, where Galangal, Bali limes, chili, ginger, mint, and other items are grown and used to flavor arak. (Ian Neubauer)

“When I moved to Bali eight years ago, I also had preconceived notions that arak, especially when not done correctly, can make you blind,” says the head bartender of Four Seasons, Singaporean Sufian Mahmoud, who designed Telu from scratch.

“But when the local food movement reached Indonesia a few years ago and bartenders started working with local arak, it encouraged producers to become more creative and to distill arak better. This is how I came up with the idea for a sustainable cocktail workshop, which focuses on the history and creativity of the Balinese. “

Arak cocktails are also available at the resort’s Sundara Beach Club & Restaurant. “Customer response has exceeded our expectations,” says Mahmoud. “People all over the world are going crazy for premium gin and tonic, so we’ve dedicated a section of our cocktail menu to arak flavored with tonic. My favorite is an arak called Selaka Ning, made from snake fruit.

Sufian Mahmoud of Singapore, the head bartender at Four Seasons Resort Bali in Jimbaran Bay, leads an arak cocktail-making class. (Ian Neubauer)

At Karma Kandara Bali, a luxury resort and beach club located atop a breathtaking cliff top on the Bukit Peninsula, bartenders combine snake fruit infused arak, mashed fruit from the snake, lemongrass almond syrup and lemon juice to make a salak cocktail (snake-fruit). Their arak girls The cocktail (pineapple) contains pineapple infused arak, pineapple juice, cinnamon and kaffir lime coconut syrup.

At the famous Potato Head Beach Club on Seminyak Beach, where mixologists at Akademi Cocktail Bar work exclusively with Balinese ingredients, arak takes center stage. Their mamarita localizes the world famous margarita by adding orange arak and mangosteen salt to the popular tequila drink that originated in Mexico.

“As an Indonesian, I am very proud to see bars and clubs incorporating arak into their menus,” says Soemantri. “It’s more valuable than we think. We owe it to our heritage to explore it more.”