Build-A-Bar: Batavia Arrack

I'll come right out and admit that I still haven't fully wrapped my head around Batavia Arrack. I've been trying for a few weeks, and its essential character still eludes me. One night, a sip of the stuff tastes like dark rum mixed with the heady smokiness of Scotch. The next day, the rummy sweetness seems to disappear, and I taste mostly black tea, with the smoke fading to the background.

The only constant I pick up, ebbing and flowing like the tides on the backs of which this primitivist rum originally found its way from Indonesia into cocktail culture, is a sort of briny, green olive note. It took me a while to recognize the flavor, most likely because it was so unexpected. When it hit, though, it stuck. Now, every time I try Arrack, it's right there in front.

Batavia Arrack is made from sugar cane and a small amount of red rice (don't confuse it for grape or palm-sap based Arrak, two totally different spirits), and was a favored ingredient in pre-cocktail punches. It fell out of favor in the States for a while, almost certainly a result of prohibition's thinning effect on the booze market. It's been back for a few years, reintroduced through Haus-Alpenz, importers of a wide range of interesting and esoteric spirits.

Think of Batavia Arrack kind of like alcoholic salt. In addition to adding its own unique flavor to a drink, it also acts as a highlighting element, and is renowned for its synergistic effect on the flavors and aromas of citrus, chocolate, and spice. Apparently, it's a common ingredient in the chocolatier's pantry, for those very reasons.

Finding ways to use Batavia Arrack proved a bit difficult. The most common historical use is in punch, most notably Swedish Punsch. Since I was unable to find a scaled-down recipe, and too lazy to bother scaling it myself, I haven't yet made a batch. Besides, it seems that Swedish Punsch is mostly just an ingredient in other recipes. I wasn't really in the mood to make several liters of a recipe for use in other recipes. If you give it a try, let me know how it turns out. Here's one version.

As I was working through some potential applications for Batavia Arrack, there was a lot of trial and error. I made some absolutely terrible drinks, but also lit on a few concepts that didn't quite work out, but showed enough promise to continue experimenting. One of those arose from a sort of dorky flavor-pun.

When it dawned on me that Batavia Arrack tasted of green olives, I thought of pimientos. From there, I decided it would be amusing to make a martini riff, using Batavia Arrack to mimic the briny introduction of an olive garnish. To round things out, I muddled a hunk of red bell pepper in the glass to start, stuffing the virtual olive with pimiento. From there, it was a fairly standard martini, subbing half of the vermouth for Batavia Arrack. It wasn't bad. It wasn't quite right, either, but it left me utterly convinced that the combination of Batavia Arrack and red bell pepper has delicious possibilities.

I got tangled in a similar, yet less tongue-in-cheek, logic web in developing my final recipe for Batavia Arrack. The following thoughts began a concentric dance in my head, coalescing stream-of-consciousness style into an actual recipe: Batavia Arrack is kind of like rum; rum goes in flips; flips often contain beer; I've always thought that stout has some olive notes; I have some Rogue Mocha Porter in the fridge; Porter is a kissing cousin of Stout; Batavia Arrack works with chocolate. A light bulb went off, and the Eureka Flip was born.

Eureka Flip:

¾ oz. Smith and Cross Rum 3/4 oz. Batavia Arrack 1/2 oz. Fernet Branca 1 1/2 oz. Rogue Mocha Porter 1/4 oz. Demerara Simple Syrup Dash Orange Bitters Whole Egg

Dry shake all ingredients just enough to combine. Make sure that you have a tight seal, or you'll end up wearing it. Add ice, and shake again for several minutes until mix is thoroughly chilled, and becomes thick and frothy. Strain into a wine glass and top with a bit of freshly grated Indonesian Long Pepper.

This rewired classic is both light and rich, with layers of flavor that stand out distinctly, yet also work to support each-other as a harmonious whole. Chocolate comes through stridently, thanks to the Arrack. The briny undercurrent of olives is there, but fades enough into the background to serve as an interesting counterpoint rather than a distraction. The herbals of Fernet couple with the savory qualities of the Arrack to keep the drink from being overly sweet, while the very sweetness of the amaro, rum, and syrup balance everything out. Orange bitters add the slightest hint of citrus. Exotically spicy (think ginger, bay, and citrus) long pepper finds complement with the wide array of flavors and aromas mingled in the drink.

The culmination bears an uncanny familiarity and an intriguing mystery, much like the enigmatic spirit that inspired it.

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Nicholas L. Hall is a husband and father who earns his keep playing a video game that controls the U.S. power grid. He also writes for the Houston Press about food, booze and music, in an attempt to keep the demons at bay. When he's not busy keeping your lights on, he can usually be found making various messes in the kitchen, with apologies to his wife.
Contact: Nicholas L. Hall