Batavia Arrack attack
Updated: May 31
Try saying that three times fast! Pronounced buh-tay-vee-uh eh-ruhk, this old-school Indonesian spirit is an ancestor to modern rum. Though hard to find, Batavia Arrack is worth the search!
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Indonesia, with the help of Dutch and Chinese influences, produces a sugarcane distillate called Batavia Arrack. Among the oldest known distilled spirits dating back to the early 1600s, Batavia Arrack predates rum. Cocktail historian David Wondrich called it, “the world’s first luxury spirit; the first booze somebody thoughts was worth shipping halfway around the world, and to drink a bowl of Punch made with it is to see why that is.”
Batavia refers to the Dutch name for the capital of the Indonesian island of Java. Today, the city is called Jakarta and is the capital and largest city of Indonesia.
Arrack is an Arabic word for distilled spirit and was the first widely accepted general term used to differentiate distilled spirits from fermented alcohol. Since arrack is made throughout India and Southeast Asia, there are many various forms. Generally, it is made with coconut palm sap or rice. Arrack is not to be confused with Arak, which is a middle Eastern fortified wine flavored with Anise—similar to Ouzo.
Dutch merchants colonized the port of Batavia in the 1600s. They planted and processed sugar plantations throughout the area, often using Chinese workers. Sugar cane grew well on Java, and neither the Indonesians nor the Dutch were ones to waste the molasses byproduct.
However, as more local Indonesians converted from Hinduism to Islam, the population became less interested in alcohol. At the same time, sailors and travelers, who were excited to find inexpensive alcohol to drink, were visiting the port of Batavia. Those visitors had the capacity to bring Batavia Arrack back to Europe and sell it at premium prices. This coincided with the introduction of Cognac in the early 1700s as the popularity and availability of luxury spirits grew.
The trip to the Netherlands allowed for barrel aging in Indonesian teakwood. Oh hello, Teakwood! The ships’ movement sloshed the spirit inside the teakwood barrels, expediting barrel aging and adding complexity to the spirit. Final filtering and bottling happened back in Amsterdam. Sweden and Germany paid premium for this unique product, which drove the price up.
The Dutch controlled the export of Batavia Arrack back to Europe for the next few hundred years. Throughout the 18th and 19th century, this spirit was enjoyed around the world and became a leading ingredient in punch. Traditional punch, a precursor for cocktails, was a celebration of unique ingredients brought by world trade. Europeans referred to the spirit as ‘rack, and no punch was complete without ‘rack.
New taxes and the increasing popularity of rum in the 1800s lead to the decreasing demand of Batavia Arrack. By World War 2, the last bit of production stalled as Indonesia fell under siege. In 1949, Indonesia gained their independence and restarting production was not a priority for the heavily Muslim country.
Batavia Arrack showcases the best flavors of modern rums because the mix of Eastern and Western production methods. Considered an East Indies rum, Batavia Arrack includes the pungent, savory flavors of a high-quality West Indies rum (e.g., Jamaican).
The distillation process utilizes several ancient Chinese methods, including the use of fermented red rice. The red rice differentiates Batavia Arrack from other spirits distilled from sugar cane, and it adds vegetal funk. We love the FUNK.
Batavia Arrack is distilled today with approximately 98% sugar cane and 2% Java red rice. However, cocktail historians believe back in the 1600s it was made with 4 parts molasses, 2 parts rice, and one part palm sap.
The process also uses the Chinese style of a dry fermentation by mixing the rice with water and molasses first. Separately, molasses is combined with palm sap for a Western style wet fermentation. Then, the liquid from the rice and the molasses palm mix are combined for further fermentation. Finally, Chinese-style egg shaped stills, as opposed to more traditional column stills, are used to make Batavia Arrack. The Europeans added the condensing coils and redistilled up to three times. Batavia Arrack is bottled at an elevated proof around 50% ABV.
Batavia Arrack Today
In 2007, the Dutch East Indies Trading, Ltd., with some help from David Wondrich, brought its product, Batavia-Arrack van Oosten, to our shores. This ‘rack is distilled in Java, blended in Amsterdam, and produced and exported out of Austria courtesy of Haus Alpenz. Currently, Batavia-Arrack van Oosten is used in bars around Indonesia as well as fine chocolates in Amsterdam. You can likely find it at your local specialty liquor store.
The most common use remains Swedish Punsch, which you can find as a batched liqueur or make your own homemade version for your next dinner party.
Cozzens’s Arrack Punch
(Homemade Swedish Punsch)
1 Bottle Batavia Arrack
6 lemons – thinly sliced
.5 lb sugar – original recipe called for 1 lb, but we are cutting this in half because sugar today is much more refined and therefore sweeter
One quart boiling water
Add the lemons to the Batavia Arrack and let them steep for 6 hours. Carefully removed them, without squeezing any juice. Separately, mix your boiling water with the sugar. Once dissolved, add Batavia Arrack. This recipe can be bottled or added to a punch bowl and enjoyed over ice.
Courtesy of David Wondrich’s book, Punch. There is a whole section on Arrack punches!
1oz dark rum
1oz Batavia Arrack
1oz sweet vermouth
0.5tsp demerara syrup
2 dashes mole bitters
2 dashes orange bitters
Add all ingredients into a Mixing glass. Add ice and stir. Strain into chilled coupe glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
This recipe was created by Brad Farran in 2021 at Death and Co. He adds the note, “At some point, every Death and Co, bartender takes on Arrack.”
There are no shortage of origins and types of rum. And though we would love to get through them all, Batavia Arrack was an obvious first. The next time you see it on a cocktail menu, please don’t be deterred by this mouthful of a name. After all, mine is Shenandoah-Marie.
Sending funky love,