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Arrack is a type of alcohol produced in Asia and parts of the Middle East. Traditionally, it has been produced from fermented palm sap, although ingredients like rice, other grains, sugarcane, and molasses can be used to produce the drink as well. This beverage is quite popular in Indonesia and parts of Sri Lanka, and some mixed drink recipes call specifically for arrack since it has a distinctive flavor. Do not confuse this alcohol with arak, a Middle Eastern drink made from raisins; arak has a flavor like anise, similar to the Greek ouzo.
The history of this beverage is probably quite old. Historical documents and works of ancient art depict the stages of arrack production, and the drink was well established by the time European traders and explorers were introduced to it. Like other hard liquors, arrack is made by fermenting the primary ingredient and then distilling the result. The liquor has a flavor similar to rum, accompanied by a rich golden color. Indonesia is a major producer; Indonesian arrack is sometimes labeled as “Batavia Arrack,” in a reference to the former name for Jakarta, capital of Indonesia.
One of the most common types is made with the sap of coconuts. To collect sap from coconut palms, workers climb the trees and cut into the flowers, gathering the resulting flow of sap in large containers. The sap is allowed to ferment into a mild palm wine which can be distilled into fiery coconut arrack. In Indonesia, fermented sugarcane is the most common base, while fermented grains may be used in other parts of Asia.
The quality of arrack varies widely, as is the case with many distilled spirits. Some producers pride themselves on making strong, clear alcohol with an excellent flavor, while others focus on producing as much of the beverage as possible, sometimes to the detriment of the finished product. Serious companies handle their arrack like famous brandy, rum, and whiskey producers, and the alcohol may be aged for flavor in various types of wood.
Specialty import stores and liquor stores are good sources for arrack, and you may want to ask staff for product recommendations if you are not familiar with any of the brands that the store carries. The liquor can sometimes be difficult to find; if you have a recipe which calls for it, you can use rum as a replacement. Many punches include arrack, as the liquor is one of the traditional five base ingredients.