History of Batavia Arrack
“Batavia Arrack” is a distillate based on sugar-cane molasses, produced exclusively on the island of Java, Indonesia. It’s comprised of a very specific range of Pot still distillates originating from the East Indies, produced on the Island of Java, Indonesia. It’s the “rum” of Indonesia. The fermentation process includes the addition of local fermented (red) rice; it is this, which sets it apart from Rum, although the base material is still sugarcane. Distillation of these products is carried out using very traditional Pot stills, adopting ancient Chinese distillers’ methods.
The name “Batavia Arrack”
The word “arrack” is probably of Arabic origin. It means “condensation”, a reference to the process of distillation. In the Middle and Near East, there is another drink with a similar name: arak or araq, which is often a fortified wine, produced from grapes and flavored with anise and therefore similar to Greek ouzo, Turkish raki or French pastis. Another variant is produced from palm leaves. Although alcohol consumption is forbidden under Islamic law, there drinks remain extremely populair in many parts of the Arab world. The similarity between names “arrack” and “arak” is linguistically interesting but potentially confusing. Historically, Dutch trading companies always used the term “Batavia Arrack” for this Indonesian Rum.
The Chinese influence
Long before the Dutch first explored the Indonesian archipelago in the early seventeenth century, and beef the United East Indies Company established Java as the centre of it’s trading empire, arrack was being produced in the region from (often) rice or palm leaves. The method of distillation has almost certainly been introduced by Arab traders, but it was Chinese sugar growers who developed the secret recipe by which molasses was fermented and then distilled to produce the arrack we know today. That recipe has been handed down from father to son. There are records with suggest that British traders started buying arrack from the Chinese distillers as long ago as 1634, while a Danish explorer describes seeing a huge number or arrack distilleries on Java in 1673. We know that there were twelve distilleries in and around Batavia in 1712, and at least twenty by 1778. In the eighteenth century, arrack became very populair in Europe, especially in Sweden as one of the main ingredients of Swedish punch.
The Dutch and Batavia Arrack
In 1796, the French scholar, political and rum connoisseur Joseph-Francois Charpentier de Cossigny wrote that “l’araque de Batavia is of better quality than Jamaica rum, a fact that even the English must concede“. At this time, the trade in arrack was entirely in the hands of the Dutch VOC. Virtually all arrack exported to Europe arrived in Rotterdam or Amsterdam. The Dutch trade was dominated by a small number of specialist dealers, who imported “raw” arrack with an alcohol content between 60-70% in large wooden barrels or buts, each containing 563 liters. This would than be stored (laid down), allowed to mature and blended to create an end product of consistent quality and flavor. By 1910, the entire Dutch arrack trade was concentrated in Amsterdam. in 1927, the arrack specialists toned forces to form the Verenigde Arrack Verkopers (United Arrack Dealers).
David Wondrich wrote 2 excellent articles about Batavia Arrack and the history of it. See here for the 2 articles: