I’m moving away from the Caribbean again to talk about another sugarcane spirit that predates Caribbean rum. The last non-rum sugarcane spirit I talked about was Cachaca, which is simply not Brazilian rum. This time, I’m going to talk about the Van Oosten Batavia Arrack.
I was fortunate to have recently watched a Zavvy.co interview with Hauz Alpenz owner Eric Seed. Hauz Alpenz is a US based importer of wines and spirits. They have quite an adventurous portfolio, as they import higher-end and/or lesser-known products like Rancio Sec wine and vermouth. The interview was mostly on how his early investment into sugarcane-based products has paid off. Some of their well-beloved products, such as Smith & Cross Jamaican rum, John D. Taylor’s Velvet Falernum and Van Oosten Batavia Arrack, were discussed.
To set a baseline, these products were curated during the early- or mid-2000s. Eric mentions he got the ideas and encouragement from talking to iconic cocktail bar industry figures such as Jim Meehan, who was still working at the Gramercy Tavern, and Dave Wondrich (Please Don’t Tell, aka PDT, opened sometime in 2007). Mainly because there was a lack of full-bodied and funky rum available in the market, Eric recalls that he was encouraged to search for arrack so bars could make punch.
So, just what is arrack? It means spirit in Arabic. There are a few types of arrack or arak in the world, which can be confusing. There’s an anise-flavored drink in Lebanon called arak. The word for any alcoholic drink in Tagalog (main Filipino language) is alak, which sounds like it comes from the word arak/arrack. We have native drinks that are distilled from fermented coconut sap called Lambanog. In addition, Sri Lanka has a coconut-based spirit called Ceylon Arrack, so the word is hardly unknown in certain regions.
For the case of Batavia Arrack, it’s an Indonesian sugarcane spirit. Aside from it being a precursor to rum, it’s also still not considered “Indonesian rum” because of the use of red rice during fermentation. Like all spirits in the 1600s, this was pot distilled. It is most likely a fermented base of molasses double distilled in clay pot stills. The column still only came about in the 1800s. These were also, traditionally, not aged.
Batavia refers to the capital city of the Island of Java, which is now modern-day Jakarta. It was also the capital of the Dutch East Indies. It should be noted that other areas such as Bali and Lambok also made Batavia Arrack.
It’s said that the Dutch came upon arrack because they were looking for spice. They were in the spice trade and not the rum trade. It’s safe to say the Dutch grew a liking for this as it was them who brought sugarcane to Barbados, which ended up being the birthplace of Caribbean rum.
According to this Cocktail Wonk article, a lot of Batavia Arrack consistently ended up in Amsterdam and Rotterdam from the 1600s to the 1800s, while a lot of Caribbean rum ended up in England. It became well-liked in European territories such as Sweden, as they used it for punch. Aside from being used in punch, Batavia Arrack was also used in confectionery.
To be clear, a lot of rum and Batavia Arrack still ends up in Europe. There are still rum warehouses in UK cities such as Liverpool. A lot of Batavia Arrack still ends up in Amsterdam via E&A Scheer. These very drinkable spirits still see use today in other industries such as baking, make-up and tobacco. Rum in the EU is a topic for another day though.
I am not sure if this is available in Europe, as I think this product was created for Hauz Alpenz. I bought this for $30 in K&L Wines.
Van Oosten Batavia Arrack – review
On the nose: A leafy herbal kind of funk. I get cilantro, basil, peppery, green bell peppers, raw bean sprouts and thyme. There’s a bit of leather in there, and some sort of a musty floral scent that makes me think of dried cascara, browned bananas, cascara tea and chamomile tea. At the end are bits of fresh lime peel and a mix of cloves, anise and coriander seeds.
In the mouth: Initially less leafy herbal this time. Surprisingly, I get bits of sulfur. There’s a funk that makes me think of a diluted pot-and-column-blend Jamaican rum. There are those cascara and bananas notes again. The sulfur notes come out again but are accompanied by fresh-squeezed lime taste. The sulfur taste starts tasting like coins and then turns into some sort of spice tea made up on cloves, cinnamon, anise and cardamom pods. The leafy herbal notes I got on the nose slowly snuck up on me at the end.
Smelling this reminds me of the early mornings I spent wandering the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter looking for pho street vendors. This is exactly what some of the pho I had smelled like, minus their meaty qualities.
The sulfur taste makes me wonder if there is no copper contact in the still, if the source/s of this arrack stuck to the design of their old stills then this is possible. From what I know, a lot of the early non-metallic stills were made up of either wood, animal skins and clay. This meant that there was no copper contact to separate the sulfites produced during distillation. This meant the distillates before the popular use of copper had sulfur characteristics.
A very unique spirit. This will be perceived as a very bad and rancid spirit for the less adventurous types. It has a lot of unusual flavors, but it does not hit as the proof would suggest. It’s something very good to try for someone who wants to get an idea of what Europe was crazy for centuries ago.
This is well worth the buy for $30. It’s certainly more flavorful than the mass-produced stuff like Bacardi and Havana Club. It’s not something you’ll have regularly as a sipper, but it would do well as a mixer.
Image kindly provided by The Whisky Exchange.