Punch Week: What is Arrack?
This week, we’re familiarizing ourselves with the cocktail’s predecessor, punch. We’re not talking about the jungle juice served from a trash can to a solo cup at your first college party, but a mellow blend of spirit, citrus, spice, and sugar that ruled the drinking world of the 18th century. If you want to know more about punch in general, check out our introductory post. Today, we’re going to focus on a long-obscure spirit called arrack that played a crucial role in punch’s beginning.
The first time I heard the word ‘arrack’ was on a visit to Lebanon. My friends and I met some guys who confessed to us that, despite their Muslim beliefs, they’d developed a taste for pastis while they were being educated in France. They asked us if we’d like to go for a glass of arrack, pastis‘ close anise cousin, with them. We said yes and got into their car. They drove us out onto a peninsula sticking out into the Mediterranean, past the cemetery, to the very end. We walked down a cliff, on to a bar floating on pontoons in the sea. Apparently, there’s a possible loophole clung to in some corners of Islam that when the Koran says you can’t drink alcohol anywhere on earth, it means you can drink it over water; plus, it’s much less likely you’ll be seen if you’re at the bottom of a cliff, facing the water, past the cemetery. In any case, we had a couple of blocks of anise liqueur on ice, had a very pleasant conversation, and then returned to the dry land of the living.
My experience with arrack left me a bit perplexed when I noticed that arrack is a common base in classic punches. I was right to be perplexed. Thankfully, David Wondrich and his book Punch were there once again to explain it to me. It turns out that ‘arrack’ is a generic term in south Asia for ‘liquor.’ In Lebanon, anise liqueur being pretty much the only local liquor, it’s known simply as ‘arrack,’ roughly, ‘booze.’ In India and Indonesia, where punch originated, arrack refers to a rum-like spirit.
Punch is a basically opportunistic style of drink. It came about when English sailors ran out of wine. They looked around for whatever ingredients were to hand, and tried to make something with them that could fill wine’s place. Since they did an awful lot of sailing in the Indian Ocean, arrack was often what was available.
There are two styles of arrack spirit used in punch: Goa arrack, which is made from palm sugar; and Batavia style, which is made from a combination of rice and sugarcane. Today’s recipe calls for Goa arrack. Goa arrack, though, is very hard to find. It turns out, though, that Batavia arrack, while practically unheard of, is not very difficult to obtain once you know to look. It’s quite likely that at your favorite liquor store–not the one you run into for a 12-pack of Stellas, but the one you go to for a decent whiskey–sitting on the liqueur shelf (though it’s a spirit), hidden in the weird, rare stuff area you’ll find a bottle of Batavia-Arrack van Oosten. It’s not even all the expensive, about $30, which is not usually the case with specialty, old-timey foreign liquor–or should I say, ‘arrack.’
Getting into the opportunistic spirit of punch, we picked up a bottle of Batavia Arrack, tasted it, liked it, and used it in this recipe that calls for the other kind. We don’t know what it would taste like as intended, but it was smooth and spicy and mellow and had a certain je-ne-sais-quoi as we made it.
Batavia Arrack, by the way, has a bit of a tangy taste, reminiscent of cachaca, but with savory Indian spices added to the mix. It wasn’t altogether different from Cotton & Reed’s spiced rum, as we think about it. Cotton & Reed went about trying to re-define craft rum and ended up replicating one of the world’s oldest spirits. Isn’t that the way things go?
Bombay Presidency Punch Recipe
Makes about 20 servings
- 1 quart Goa arrack–as we mentioned, we used Batavia arrack
- 1 cup lime juice
- 1 cup palm sugar
- 5 cups water
- nutmeg or rosewater to season at the end
- It’s probably worth noting here that most any punch can be served either hot or cold. It you serve this one hot, boil the water. If you’re serving it cold, either use a big block of ice, to slow dilution, or decrease the amount of water to adjust for the melting watering it down. We made this one cold.
- Muddle the lime juice and sugar until the sugar is dissolved.
- Add arrack and stir.
- Add water.
- Grate a little nutmeg or shake a few drops of rosewater in for the finale.