If you think the top-shelf vodkas and whiskies are too soft for your palette or if the local beer finally gets to you, then it’s time to take a trip to Karangasem regency where you can revitalise your taste buds and help you come away with a different perspective on the island’s own moonshine, arak.
A lot of us, both residents and visitors, have had a night out or two involving arak. This traditional Balinese liquor, the island’s version of moonshine if we may say, is derived from the palm tree, and has been described as strong, foul, and makes an affordable, great night out. It can taste awful for some, but it mixes well and does the trick.
A few years back arak received seriously bad press, with local newspapers reporting deaths and blindness caused by this traditional liquor. And these weren’t just rumours. But the frightening part was the casualties and blindness was caused by the kind of arak that was sold, and even taxed, in stores – not the traditional kind that the Balinese drink.
Today, arak is making a comeback. A number of notable drinking venues around Seminyak and Canggu have recently put arak into their innovative mixology, and even begin to infuse the arak with other ingredients to make it burst with flavours. Patrons need not worry, for these venues source their arak directly from the Karangasem villagers who know what they are doing.
Yes, Karangasem has beautiful beaches such as the aptly-named White Sand Beach and Blue Lagoon. However, if you take time to venture out from the palm-fringed beaches, looking into the production process of local arak might delight your senses. A number of Karangasem villages even specialise in brewing arak such as the village of Tri Eka Buana in the picturesque Sidemen area.
Passing the narrow, winding, asphalted road of Tri Eka Buana will give visitors a glimpse of the real Bali. The majority of the villagers here are farmers and arak producers, possessing the skills and knowledge to arak brewing that have been passed down for generations, providing them with a livelihood.
Early in the morning, the villagers climb high up into their palm trees to collect the coconut flowers for the tuak, where the arak is distilled from. The tuak will then be put in a drum, along with the coconut husks, for fermentation before being boiled and distilled to produce a good quality arak – the process can take up to 10 hours. The end product is packaged in plastic mineral water bottles, or for the producers who think outside of the box, pour them into Jack Daniels or Smirnoff bottles.
The alcohol content of arak varies from 20 – 50%, and apparently the Tri Eka Buana villagers have picked up some tricks from their Bali’s south outlets – some of the producers now infuse it with other ingredients such as jack fruit to give their arak more flavours. A small bottle of arak is sold between IDR 20,000 – 25,000 depending on the alcohol content.
Just like other Balinese traditions, drinking arak is a communal activity at Tri Eka Buana. It’s served at various ceremonies including funerals, weddings, and numerous other Balinese Hindu ceremonies. In addition, locals often drink arak in the evenings with their close chums, either at a friend’s place, village bale, or outside along the street. Arak is poured into the communal cup and passed to each person in turn. Everyone sits around chatting and joking, taking their swig of arak in turn. They always swill it back in one big gulp.