My trip to Sri Lanka was primarily dedicated to tea, but along the way we made a point to explore as many aspects of the local drinks culture as possible. For distilled spirits, that meant coconut arrack, the country’s signature and most popular spirit.
To prevent confusion, it’s best to start with what coconut arrack is not. It’s not Batavia arrack, the Indonesian spirit distilled from sugar cane and red rice. It’s also not Mediterranean arak or raki, the anise-flavored liqueur. Though these spirits may share a common etymology, the similarities end there. The tastes and methods of production are completely different, and they’re not substitutes for each other.
Sri Lankan coconut arrack is distilled from nectar drawn from coconut flowers, collected by “toddy tappers.” This nectar rapidly ferments into a low-alcohol beverage called toddy. Sadly I did not have an opportunity to try this, but it’s photographed below.
The fermented toddy is distilled and aged in barrels of oak or halmilla, an indigenous tree species. After ageing it’s bottled and sold in the ubiquitous “wine shops,” which purvey all kinds of alcoholic beverages.
In every example that I encountered, spirits were purchased by walking up to a window display and ordering from a cashier who retrieves the requested bottles and completes the transaction. Even if the alcohol counter was within another store, it was completely cordoned off. I’m guessing this is a legal requirement. Regardless, outside of the airport duty free store I didn’t come across any place where one could freely roam the shelves.
The shop windows range from utilitarian…
… to more upscale.
As seen above, a lot of the big global brands are here. There’s also a variety of coconut arrack to choose from. The cheapest of these can be had for about three US dollars per 375 ml bottle. At the higher end, I found an offering from Mendis with an eighteen year age statement that sold for about $35 for 700 ml. In total, I sampled about eight different bottlings of coconut arrack, and brought four home with me.
One word of advice about buying arrack in Sri Lanka: Read the fine print! One of the bottles I picked up was awful. So awful, in fact, that not even a bus of bartenders would drink it. A glance at the label revealed the reason. Just as there are mixto tequilas that blend agave with neutral spirits, there are coconut arracks that do the same with neutral spirits and distilled toddy. But whereas mixto tequilas require at least 51% of the spirit to come from agave, the percentage of coconut spirits in some arracks is as low as 3%. The ones I tried have nothing but price to recommend them.
The pure arracks, though, can be quite nice. They strike me as most comparable to rum, though with a distinctive floral note and brightness. Barrel ageing contributes hints of vanilla and smooths out the spirit.
Fortunately, one no longer has to go all the way to Sri Lanka to try it. White Lion VSOA is now available in the United States, produced by Distilleries Company of Sri Lanka. The VSOA stands for “Very Special Old Arrack,” an abbreviation used to comply with American labeling regulations regarding the word “arrack.” It’s definitely among the best I’ve tried and worth seeking out for a unique addition to one’s bar. (White Lion also provided the toddy photos above.)
One more word of advice when shopping for alcohol in Sri Lanka: Keep an eye on the sky. Poya, which fall about every thirty days and follow the lunar calendar, are religious holidays. If there’s a full Moon, the sale of alcohol is forbidden. Even in hotel bars catering to tourists, you will be greeted with a sign like the one above. Fortunately our hosts warned us of this the day before, and our bus of thirsty bartenders was well rationed with local beers and arrack.
Speaking of beer, the one above was my favorite of the ones I tried in Sri Lanka. Most of the beers sold here are refreshing lagers, but this was a full-bodied stout. Was I man enough to deserve it? Maybe not, but I enjoyed it anyway.
By this time in our trip we’d made it well up into the hill country to Nuwara Eliya, once known as “Little England” for its popularity with the British. I understand the appeal. Up here the weather is comfortably temperate compared to the heat and humidity along the coast. It’s no wonder the British moved inland and upward, bringing colonial architecture, a golf course, and billiard rooms with them. Visiting the Grand Hotel is like stepping back in time a hundred years, with wi-fi.
Indidentally, I wonder now if the American drinks writer Charles Baker stayed in the same hotel. In the foreword to Jigger, Beaker, and Glass, he mentions spending “two days in Newara Eyliya, hill station back of Colombo, Ceylon, to get our breath.” On that same adventure he also went to visit a friend at Galle Face…
“… where we swam in the blood-warm Indian Ocean and drank enough of his Flying Fish cocktails to do, and lay on the cool sand and listened to Tauber sing Dein Ist Mein Ganzes Herz on the gramophone. Then when we swam again we slipped out of our suits to make the water feel better, and finally, when it was very late indeed, we dressed and said goodnight and vowed eternal friendship to our host; then for precisely no reason at all dismissed our waiting carriage with a flourish of gross overpayment and walked all the way back in our evening clothes through a new quiet rain to the jetties and the motor launch, just in time to prevent one of our best American cruising friends from consummating bribery of of the Quartermaster of the good ship RESOLUTE into letting him hoist a purchased baby girl elephant — whom he said was Edith, and over whom he politely held a Burmese parasol of scarlet oiled silk — from a hired barge onto the forward hatch in a sling!”
And, well, you get the picture.
The Grand Hotel is home to one of Dilmah’s T Bars, cafes in which one can order a nearly full range of Dilmah teas. Whether coming down to it for tea in the morning or sitting outside late into the night with a hookah, I loved this place.
On our final night here, we each gave a presentation on various ways to incorporate tea into cocktails. For my own, I opted to go with a riff on classic punch technique, which often uses tea instead of water to dilute the strength of the higher proof ingredients. Given how much coconut arrack I was hauling around with me, I wanted to use that too.
500 ml Dilmah green tea
100 g palm sugar
7 oz lemon juice
6 oz Damrak gin
3 oz White Lion coconut arrack
Brew the tea and then pour it hot into a punch bowl with the palm sugar. Using a muddler, crush the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the remaining ingredients, grate nutmeg and cinnamon atop the punch, and slip in an ice block or ladle into ice-filled punch glasses. (In Nuwara Eliya I used jaggery, but I’ve adapted the recipe to palm sugar, which I find more readily here.)
And, finally, remember not to let good punch go to waste.
[Photos that are not my own courtesy of Bols, Dilmah, and White Lion.]