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Reinventing an ancient spirit with a bad reputation

In Bali, Indonesia's traditional 'arak' liquor is moving upmarket

A bartender mixes an arak cocktail at Karma Kandara Bali, a luxury resort and beach club on the island's Bukit Peninsula. (Ian Neubauer)

DENPASAR, Indonesia -- Ask people who have holidayed in Bali about arak -- a colorless alcoholic drink traditionally made in backyard distilleries -- and you will hear stories about drinkers getting sick, going blind and sometimes even dying after patronizing cheap bars that substitute arak for imported spirits to increase profits.

"There have been a number of deaths and cases of serious illness of locals and foreigners in Indonesia caused by drinking alcoholic drinks contaminated with methanol. There have also been cases of methanol poisoning from drinking adulterated arak," warns the U.K. government's foreign travel advice.

"Outside of reputable bars and resorts, it's best to avoid buying arak, the locally produced booze made from rice or palm," advises Lonely Planet. "It can contain poisonous methanol, which is produced during the fermentation process and is not always burned off."

Many Indonesians also harbor negative perceptions of arak, which is haram (forbidden) to Muslims but sold in plastic bags throughout the country for as little as $1. "The younger generation sees arak as a cheap way to get drunk while older generations consider it dirty or bad because of the religious stigma," says Kevindra Soemantri, a food writer who narrated the Indonesian episode of the Netflix series "Street Food."

"Arak is a cultural product of Indonesia -- there's no denying it," Soemantri said. "Actually, the word is kind of new, adopted from the Middle East. Traditionally we call it tuak; there are inscriptions on stones about the making of tuak in Indonesia that date back to the 14th century.

Karusotju, a new top-shelf arak made from yams, has a flavor profile that resembles a blend of whiskey and cognac. (Ian Neubauer)

"Going back even further, Chinese explorers who sailed to Java in the seventh century wrote about their experience drinking an alcoholic beverage made from palm sap. So if we adore Indonesian food, why can't we embrace arak as part of our heritage? If we did, I think people would understand how to enjoy it responsibly."

A small but growing number of arak aficionados in Bali are doing exactly that: reinventing arak in the image of top-shelf Scotch whisky and Kentucky bourbon by producing flavored artisanal arak, inventing new arak-based cocktails and opening arak cellars offering upmarket versions of the liquor that sell for up to $70 a bottle or are used as a base for exotic cocktails in bars that sell for up to $20 a glass.

Among the new generation of enthusiasts is Alisjahbana Haliman, a food scientist and exporter who has been selling vanilla and other Indonesian products to the U.S. since the 1980s. Five years ago he founded Karusotju, an artisanal arak brand made from yams with a "burned liquor" distillation process borrowed from shochu -- an alcoholic beverage from Japan -- and a barrel-aging technique popularized by the French.

Karusotju is sold at Talasi Estate -- a coffee plantation, chocolatier and distillery in the foothills of Mount Batukaru in western Bali. (Ian Neubauer)

"For many years I visited vineyards in places like Napa [ a winemaking district of California] and Bordeaux [France] and was amazed by the quality of their products; it inspired me to create a very special spirit of our own," Haliman said. "We can't make good wine in Indonesia because it's too hot to grow wine grapes here, but we have a long tradition of making arak. That's how the idea of Karusotju was born. It's elegant, it's original -- a premium product that's well-balanced in terms of the feel in the mouth and the nose."

Karusotju comes in two varietals denominated by their alcohol content: Karu 18, which is geared for younger consumers and is not dissimilar to Japanese sake; and Karu 38, a stronger blend targeted at more mature drinkers that resembles a whiskey and cognac blend. They are sold online for $38 and $58 respectively, through luxury resorts and other purveyors in Bali and at Talasi Estate, a coffee plantation, chocolatier and distillery in the foothills of Mount Batukaru in western Bali. The company has not released data on sales, which have been hampered by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on tourism.

The Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay hotel near the island's international airport has also jumped onto the arak bandwagon with Telu, an open-air aromatic herb garden and arak cellar that began trading in April. There, guests learn about the history and medicinal benefits of arak and see how it is matured in clay pots and infused with local herbs like galangal, Bali limes, chili, ginger or mint. Then they get behind the bar and try their hand at mixing cocktails such as the arakoni, made from arak gin, arak amaro and arak vermouth.

Top: Arak is distilled the traditional way in clay pots at Telu, a new cellar at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay. Bottom: The resort's open-air herb garden, where galangal, Bali limes, chilli, ginger, mint and other items are grown and used to flavor arak. (Ian Neubauer)

"When I moved to Bali eight years ago I also had preconceived notions that arak, especially when it's not made properly, can make you blind," says the Four Seasons' head bartender, Singaporean Sufian Mahmoud, who designed Telu from scratch.

"But when the local food movement reached Indonesia a couple of years ago and bartenders started working with local arak, it encouraged producers to get more creative and a lot better at distilling arak. That's how I came up with the idea of a sustainable cocktail workshop that focuses on the history and creativity of the Balinese."

Arak cocktails are also offered at the resort's Sundara Beach Club & Restaurant. "The reaction from customers beat our expectations," Mahmoud says. "People all around the world are going crazy about high-end gin and tonics so we dedicated a section of our cocktail menu to flavored arak with tonic. My favorite is an arak called Selaka Ning that's made from snake fruit."

Sufian Mahmoud of Singapore, the head bartender at the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay, leads an arak cocktail-making class. (Ian Neubauer)

At Karma Kandara Bali, a luxury resort and beach club set on the breathtaking cliff tops on the island's Bukit Peninsula, bartenders combine snake-fruit infused arak, snake-fruit puree, lemongrass almond syrup and lemon juice to make a salak (snake-fruit) cocktail. Their arak nanas (pineapple) cocktail contains pineapple-infused arak, pineapple juice, cinnamon and kaffir lime coconut syrup.

At the famous Potato Head beach club on Seminyak Beach, where mixologists at the Akademi cocktail bar work exclusively with Balinese ingredients, arak takes center stage. Their mamarita localizes the globally known margarita by adding orange arak and mangosteen salt to the popular tequila-based drink that originated in Mexico.

"As an Indonesian, it gives me great pride to see bars and clubs incorporate arak in their menus," says Soemantri. "It has more value than we realize. We owe it to our heritage to explore it more."

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