Origin of the name
Arak or araq (Arabic: عرق IPA [ʕaraq]) is a clear, colourless, unsweetened aniseed-flavoured distilled alcoholic drink, produced in the eastern Mediterranean, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel and Iraq. The word comes from Arabic araq عرق, meaning “sweat” or “juice”. Arak is not to be confused with the similarly named liquor, arrack.
It is believed that arak was developed by the Christian and Jewish minorities of the Islamic Middle East. Jabir ibn Hayyan, a Muslim alchemist of the early Islamic era, invented the alembic, which facilitated the distillation of alcoholic spirits, the name used in Lebanon is al karkeh or little more formally al kattara. However, Muslims did not use his invention to produce alcoholic beverages since, in Islam, the consumption of alcohol is forbidden. Hence, his discovery was employed to distill perfume from flowers and to produce kohl, a women’s eye cosmetic in which a black powder is liquefied, then converted to vapour and allowed to re-solidify.
The Arabs carried the art of distilling kohl to Spain from where it spread to the remainder of Europe. In these Christian lands, it took on a much different use: the production of alcoholic drinks. With the utilisation of this method of producing hard spirits, the Arabic name “al-kohl“, which became alcohol, was adopted due to the similar method the Arabs used in manufacturing this cosmetic. The words in English relating to the art of distillation, besides alcohol, such as “alchemy”, “alchemist”, and “alembic” attest to the Arab origin of producing the many intoxicants found in western lands.
Traditionally, arak was generally of local or village manufacture, but in the last few decades it has increasingly been produced in large manufacturing plants. It has remained the preference of those who enjoy alcoholic drinks in the Middle East, in competition with the many drinks imported from the West.
SE Asia’s arak connection
Arrack refers to the strong spirits distilled mainly in South and South East Asia from fermented fruits, grains, sugarcane, or the sap of coconuts or other palm trees. The word itself originated from the Arabic word ‘araq’, which means “juice”. The name is said to signify, in the East, any
spirituous liquor; but that which usually bears this name is toddy. Generally fermented from coconut sap today, it is then distilled to produce an alcoholic beverage that tastes somewhat like something between whiskey and rum. Originally from India, where it is distilled from Kallu,
Arrack is mainly produced in Sri Lanka. It is generally distilled between 37% to 50% alcohol by volume (70 to 100 proof). Arrack is traditionally taken straight or with water. Contemporarily it also often taken with ginger ale or soda, or as a component of various cocktails.
How arak is enjoyed by tourists in Bali
Here in Bali the word is spelt ‘arak’, locals having no idea another drink of the same name exists elsewhere. Two popular drinks enjoyed by westerners are Arak Attack (arak and orange juice) and Arak Madu (arak, water, honey, with a slice of lime). The Arak Madu tastes like a ‘poor man’s margarita’, with a sour / tangy aspect. Arak is not one of the finer drinks in the world and when compared to tequila, or other distilled spirits has a rather unrefined character. An arak madu might cost 8,000rp in a Kuta warung, or 20,000rp in a beach cafe. Nightclubs and lounge bars generally do not serve arak as it is a cheap liquor.
How arak is used by Balinese people
Local Balinese men will drink neat arak at cockfights and ceremonies. As The Joy of Arak Madu says “Typically it’s poured from a bottle into a tapan, a ladle made from a banana leaf. The worshiper or priest holds the tapan in the left hand and wafts the essence of the arak with his right hand, often using a flower held between the fingers to aim it towards the gods in a gesture called ngayabang. Then, shifting the tapan to the right hand, the arak is poured on the ground as an offering to the spirits. This second act is called matabuh, which refers to the spilling of a liquid on the ground as an offering to the lower spirits. Arak used for this purpose is very low quality. The good stuff is saved for drinking.”
Arak is deliberately spilt on the ground in honor of Dewi Sri, the Goddess of rice. During the ogah ogah displays in Denpasar and Kuta, the bearers will have had some arak before starting out, on occassion the float ending up in the audience.
Arak is never going to win any prizes, but its part of Balinese culture and has helped many a tourist aong with their adventures.