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An affair with Sri Lanka’s national tipple

Fresh, it is a health drink for children; matured and distilled into arrack, it becomes ambrosia for a tired soul

A man collecting sap on a coconut palm tree. Photo: Alamy
A man collecting sap on a coconut palm tree. Photo: Alamy

The first real drink I ever had was arrack in its raw form, toddy, in a rest house in the interiors of Kerala. It arrived early in the day, and the cook used it to fluff up and flavour the delicious appams. By evening, the toddy had matured into a bitter and strong drink, just what the body and soul needed after a long, hot and hard day. Having grown up in dry Gujarat, and been brought up on the staple advice of “good girls don’t drink", I rarely indulged in one. The toddy changed that. A whole culture and a zillion stories were brewed in that tipple, piquing my interest in indigenous liquor.

When planning a brief trip to Sri Lanka, therefore, on top of my “must-do" and “get-back" list was its signature arrack. Though traditionally brewed in India as well, it never took off in a big way due to inconsistent policy and bans. The Sri Lankans take their arrack to another level. The island is the single largest producer of coconut arrack, which is exported and served in select fine-dining restaurants across Europe.

Sri Lankan arrack is tapped from coconut flower stems, which produce a naturally fermenting sap. It is harvested the same way that toddy is in the coastal belt of India. The toddy tapper shimmies up a tree—it could be as high as 75ft— rappelling and walking on a tightrope from tree to tree to fill the clay pot tied to his waist with a rope. This toddy (derived fresh from sap, also called neera) is a condiment in coastal kitchens, and a sweet, refreshing protein drink relished by children. Once the toddy ferments naturally, it is filtered and double distilled within hours of tapping. Then, it is stored in vats made of halmilla, a local hardwood. From time to time, the arrack may be mixed with spices and herbs to enhance the flavour and mellow the liquor as it ages.

The Very Special Old Arrack alcohol label. Photo: Alamy
The Very Special Old Arrack alcohol label. Photo: Alamy

What emerges, ultimately, is a divine liquor. I am no connoisseur, but the ambrosia flowed smooth as I had my first taste seated in the lush garden of a B&B in Galle, as a lovely hourglass frog hopped on to the table. My next taste was an Arrack Sour (minus the egg), a cocktail of arrack muddled with lemon juice, cinnamon syrup, cherry. It was a luscious tipple, downed in a lovely old colonial club, accompanied by poppadums, salt in the air, and the sound of the sea.

The better news is: there were no horrid headachy reminders of a boozy evening.

I carried back a premium Ceylon Arrack, elegantly packed in a bottle of pinkish hue. I had it the traditional way with coconut water, freezing the latter into ice cubes and letting them slowly melt into the pale golden spirit as I sipped. Its aroma was heavenly, and the nutty, malty drink with its hint of coconut took me back to balmy evenings on an island I had only had a brief affair with, yet made memories that linger on—aided by the arrack.

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