Hooch. Moonshine. Bootleg liquor. It means any illegally distilled alcohol produced outside the blessings and taxation of the government.
Legitimate versions of moonshine are well-known spirits — single malt Scotch whiskey, cachaça from Brazil or rum from the Caribbean. Whatever it is, it’s based on the local flora, like Mexican cactus for tequila or European hops and barley for beer.
In the case of Indonesia, the indigenous spirit is called arak. In many parts of Bali, it is still homemade by locals and served at ceremonies and local bars. Such is the case in Amed, Bali, which is well-known for it’s quality and poison-free arak. Homemade distillations are inherently dangerous because the layman does not have the sophisticated equipment to make sure he’s not producing methanol, the highly toxic cousin of the champion of mixed drinks. Apparently, in the region around Amed, where we were, the families have been making the stuff for years and their skills are handed down from generation to generation. In other parts of Indonesia, people have died from bad moonshine arak.
Having partaken of a bit of palm wine and arak at a traditional Indonesian wedding, we thought we should see an excellent production line for arak. We also wanted to know what local plant was being fermented to make these spirits.
As is often the case in Bali, a given village is mostly populated by just a few families. In Lipah beach, our favorite restauranteur’s nephew agreed to take us to his relatives’ still. It was a 20-minute scooter ride, the last part of which was on something that one might only loosely call a road.
Avoiding the trenches, rocks and potholes, we arrived at a family homestead which not only had the usual roosters and chickens, but also, cows and pigs.
And a still.
We learned that arak is actually a distillation of palm wine. Palm wine is a white, low alcohol-content fermentation. We thought maybe it was from some part of the palm tree like the leaves or seeds, but really had no clue of its origins. The stuff they serve at weddings is in 5 gallon jugs and tastes like a cross between a bad wine, soured fruit juice and vinegar. To say it’s not my favorite drink would be a gross understatement. The taste is just a little north of horrible, actually.
We were surprised when the brewer showed us a coconut variety that we never saw before. It has a dark outside and a jelly inside its cavities. The jelly tastes like a mild, less sweet version of the coconut that we all know and love (especially in piña coladas).
They ferment the jelly to make big jugs of palm wine. Then they distill the palm wine to make arak. I was expecting beautiful copper coils and glass jugs. No such luck. The still is about as crude as it gets. It works.
When you find yourself in Amed, Bali, order an arak with honey and lemon over ice.