When you lie on a white sand beach beneath swaying palm trees your spirits are naturally lifted as thoughts rise to the sweep and sway of the fronds overhead. Here, in these graceful tops to the Coconut palm are indeed spirits that will lift you. In elegant cascades of light orange the coconut flowers provide the basis of arrack – the nectar of Eden.
But wait; there are in fact three types of palm that produce such nectar, the Coconut, Palmyra and Kithul. Coconuts dominate the coastal plains, Kithul the hills and Palmya the dryer northern regions. Regardless the process is the same; unopened flowers are cut at the tip and a dish attached to catch the sap that flows. Normally the “Toddy Tappers” cut the flowers in the early morning and should have the toddy in collection drums within 3 to 4 hours. An average palm will produce 2 litres of sap per day.
Since these palms may easily be 20 plus metres high the job is somewhat risky. So they don’t have to climb down each palm to move to the next they string rickety rope “ladders” between the palms to allow movement. Deaths among Toddy Tappers is not an uncommon happening.
The whitish ooze that flows from the cut flower has a very high sugar and yeast content. This captured juice, Toddy, is then put into barrels for transport. Once upon a time these barrels were teak or hamilla but now the ubiquitous blue plastic drums are the common sight. Because of the yeast content it begins to ferment almost immediately it is collected. Some is drunk at this stage and it is probably best described as a slightly cidery taste with a bit of a kick, though really only very mild.
As it ferments a little more it becomes Kissapu (illegal liquor) which is more potent and more likely to be a health hazard. Kissapu is a risky drink because hygiene conditions are usually poor and the fermenting liquor becomes contaminated with a range of pathogens. It also is higher in alcohol but not necessarily the “good” ones! Kissapu may have significant amounts of ethel alcohol and methanol, guaranteed to deliver a blinder of a headache and a sensitive tummy.
The Toddy that makes it through to the distillers however enjoys some care and attention to gradually become Arrack.
In 1881 The Household Cyclopedia of General Information provided an interesting (but generally inaccurate) description of the production of Arrack reflecting the mysticism surrounding the “far east”;
“Arrack is no other than a spirit produced by distillation from a vegetable juice called toddy, which flows out of the cocoanut tree. The operator provides himself with a parcel of earthen pots, climbs up the trunk of a cocoatree; and when he comes to the boughs, he cuts off one of the small knot or buttons, and applies the mouth of a bottle to the wound, fastening it to the bough with a bandage; in the same manner he cuts off others, and proceeds till the whole number is employed; this done, he leaves them until the next morning, when he takes off the bottles, which are mostly filled, and empties the juice into the proper receptacle. When a sufficient quantity is produced, the whole put together, is left to ferment. When the fermentation is over, and the liquor is a little tart, it is put into the still, and fire being made, the still is suffered to work as long as that which comes has any considerable taste of spirit. The liquor thus procured is the low wine of arrack; and distilled again to separate some of its watery parts, and rectify it to that very weak kind of proof spirit in which state we find it."
In truth however distillation of Arrack is much more scientific. The toddy from thousands of trees arrive at collection centres is tested for quality, and taken to the distillery and poured into “wash backs” traditionally made of teak or halmilla. Wash backs are the large vats where the bulk of fermentation takes place. Ideally all this occurs within 3-4 hours of the sap being drawn from the flower; then begins the delicate process of distillation.
In the Wash Backs the natural yeast feeds on the sugars producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. After about three days the liquid has an alcohol content of 5 to 7% by volume, and is now known as wash. Up until this point the process has been quite similar to the production of beer.
The wash is then pumped into the first copper pot still, known as the wash still, to be distilled. The wash is heated, boiling off the alcohol, which is collected in a water-cooled condenser.
This spirit, known as low wine, has an alcohol content of about 20 to 40%. The low wine is pumped into a second pot still, known as the spirit still, distilled a second and sometimes a third time. The final spirit generally has an alcohol content of 60 to 70%.
The distillation process is complete within 24 hours. The extracted spirit is transferred to Halmilla timber vats. This particular timber is prized for maturing spirits as it is believe it has the ability to make the coconut spirits mellow. No artificial flavours or ingredients are added. Maturation can take 15 years, depending on flavour, texture, alcoholic strength and fragrance requirements. Once matured the Arrack is then blended by master blenders drawing on know-how passed down from generation to generation and company tradition to produce the final result.
So that all done, what does it taste like? Well it’s a bit hard to describe. Personally I’d place it somewhere between whiskey and rum. It’s neither as sweet as rum nor as peaty as whiskey. Strangely it’s not “coconut” to me but perhaps more florally (like brandy), with distinct vanilla hints. It’s also wonderful!
For your education, at great personal expense, these are tasting notes from a weekend on Trapobane Island. There were 3 participants and I’ll leave it to you to decide a) who took this seriously and b) who could hold their liquor.
Black Opal Arrack Price Rps 740/--
1. Dry, caramel overtones. Some early “chemical” impact.
2. Kerosene crap.
3. Could double as paint stripper.
DCS Double Distilled Price Rps 790/--
1. Dry, vanilla hints, complex.
2. Which one is this?
3. Not bad, smooth, drinkable.
DCS VSO Arrack Price Rps 800/--
1. Rum like, long body.
2. Not bad, good body, complex
3. Short legs. What?
VX Arrack Price Rps 800/--
1. Distinct “Cashew” flavour, dry with early alcohol on the nose.
2. Very good, nutty flavour but no length.
3. Ripsnorting hangover material.
Mendis Triple Distilled Arrack Price Rps 920/--
1. Very smooth, fruity with a “cognac” style about it.
2. Very good, almost cognac-like.
3. Grows hair on a woman’s chest.
Old Reserve Arrack Price Rps 960/--
1. Liquer style, quite “coconut” and sticky feel.
2. Gone to bed.
3. Will polish mahogany to a brilliant shine.
Mendis 10 Years Old Arrack Price Rps 1600/--
1. Oily, distinct “coconut” and rather overpowering mouth feel.
2. Gone to bed.
3. Liquid squeezed out of a Sri Lankan sarong tastes better. Who knows that sort of stuff?
Mendis 15 Years Old Arrack Price Rps 2700/--
1. Very smooth, dry finish with some body.
2. Gone to bed.
3. Didn’t like it – too expensive! Finally a meaningful comment!