For a sip of distilled arrack

Known locally as arakku, Sri Lankan arrack has a history which dates back hundreds of years.
Last Updated : 20 April 2024, 21:45 IST
Last Updated : 20 April 2024, 21:45 IST

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As a salty sea breeze rolls in and neon lights pop up in the Colombo skyline, an exquisite cocktail in a beautifully polished coconut shell is gently nudged in my direction. Standing on the edge of the rooftop pool that now reflects the lights steadily coming on, I raise my drink for a toast. ‘Bommu’, I repeat, after the host. Cheers, to the return of the arrack which is finally getting all the accolades it deserves, in its brand-new avatar.

Known locally as arakku, Sri Lankan arrack has a history which dates back hundreds of years. Its production can be traced back to the 8th century with references to the spirit found in historical texts dating back to that period. It was first curated essentially for medicinal reasons and was even used as a form of currency in some regions. Today, the traditional spirit, distilled from the sap of coconut flowers, is unique to the island and is not to be confused with the anise-flavoured grape-based spirit, also called arrack, that abounds in the Middle East. It is also different from the wide range of rice wines grouped under the umbrella of ‘arak’ in various countries — from the tropics of Indonesia to the mountains of Nepal, each version of their arak has a local name of its own. In Sri Lanka, however, historic significance has played a major role in arraku slowly making a comeback, repackaged as cocktails that pique interest.

When the country was colonised in the 19th century, arrack production in Sri Lanka underwent significant changes. The British established large-scale distilleries to produce arrack for export, so the colonial period also saw the introduction of more modern distillation techniques. Not only did these increase the production overall, but also introduced the drink to the world outside and increased its popularity locally as well.

My first taste of this refreshingly new drink is at the chic and aptly named Bommu rooftop bar at Radisson Blu Resort Galle, overlooking the beach and a terrific skyline. The classy presentation compliments my plush surroundings, where the hotel has created a whole new menu around it as an ode to its Lankan provenance. The coconut flower sap used in arak production lends it its unique flavour profile, making it ideal for cocktails. My drink is laced with passion fruit as well, which grows locally in plenty and brings out the floral notes of the arrack even more. The idea behind the curation is for all major ingredients to be a return to the roots. Their specials include the one I tried, Ammatasiri, which is passion fruit, honey and Tabasco in arrack. Try Stella, a fusion of apricot brandy with arrack in fresh lime juice, topped with fresh strawberries. There are also a bunch of Whisky Sour spin-offs called Arrack Sours which are a huge hit.  

Arrack’s production process involves collecting the sap from coconut
flowers, which is then fermented and distilled to produce the potent spirit.
The distillation process is typically carried out in a traditional pot that
gives Sri Lankan arrack its distinctive flavour and character. The spirit has
complex floral tones with notes of citrus and coconut different not only
from other spirits and cocktails but also from other local tropical spirits
that are usually made from fermented coconut sap.

While some would describe the taste of arrack as being somewhere in between whisky and rum, I’d say I also traced hints reminiscent of cognac in it.

Another place to try arrack cocktails in Galle, recommended by culinary expert and India’s only 50 Best Tastehunter Smitha Menon, is Ropewalk. The arrack tasting experience there comprises a journey through Sri Lanka via five unique arracks paired with bites inspired by Sri Lanka’s dive bar cuisine. Samples include Paradise, a white coconut arrack with robust tropical flavours of pineapple and a rich mouthfeel, Jaffna Usaar Palmyrah Arrack, sourced from the northern province of the country and made from the palmyra tree, and the medium-bodied Ceylon Arrack with gentle floral and citrus notes and a dry rum finish among others. If you enjoy cocktails, pick from drinks such as the Ropewalk Signature Sour, featuring infused Rockland old arrack, lime, ginger, and lemongrass. In the mood for a deeper flavour profile? Get the Smoky Marmalade, made with Halmilla arrack, lemon marmalade, pandan and rosemary. “Try neat arrack with a drop of water and some ice to sample the flavour of the spirit first, before trying it in a cocktail,” suggests Smitha.

You can enjoy straight arrack pours on the rocks, or infusions such as
cinnamon, orange and cherry and mixed spices, or even the quintessential cocktail across a bunch of hotspots in other places too on the island, with Smoke & Mirrors in Negombo, Uncle’s in Colombo, and ON14 at Radisson Colombo being among the best.

In recent years, several efforts have been made to promote and protect the
traditional production methods of Sri Lankan arrack. Organisations such as the Sri Lanka Coconut Arrack Producers Association work to preserve the heritage and authenticity of this unique spirit, ensuring that it continues to be enjoyed for generations to come. The spirit has also gained recognition for its quality, with some varieties winning international awards. Today, Sri Lankan arrack is a popular alcoholic beverage enjoyed both not only on the island but also around
the world. On my last night in Colombo, I slowly sip from my glass of muddled lime, orange and jaggery-infused arrack, going right down to the lees in a bid to savour the last of the drink, and also this journey that has been an ode to origins.

Published 20 April 2024, 21:45 IST

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