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ARAK IS A BALINESE LIQUOR which is distilled from tuak, a sweet wine made from the coconut palm flower. Tuak is about 5% alcohol. Good arak can contain over 50%. Some arak is distilled from brem, which is a wine made from black glutinous rice and coconut milk. A bottle of arak costs about 20,000 rupiahs, which is about US$1.00. Please don't confuse this product with the arak that's the Turkish national drink. That tastes a lot like ouzo. Balinese arak tastes like arak. Accept no substitutes.

  That Strange Stuff Called Arak
The effect of drinking arak is more akin to tequila than other liquors—it has a similar drug-like effect as opposed to a drunk feeling. Which isn't to say you won't get drunk. It's very potent. And if you drink too much you're liable to have some strange dreams. People in Bali say Rangda, the witch demon, visits them when they drink too much arak. Don't worry, at least you're not waking up next to her in the morning. Hopefully. The good news is you won't wake up with a hangover from drinking arak. Well, not as long as you don't mix your liquors.

Think about it, do you want a middle of the night visit from the likes of Rangda, even it might be a dream? Remember, "might" is the imperative word here.



Arak, It's For More Than Drinking
Arak isn't only used for recreational purposes, it's widely utilized for medicinal and religious reasons. Many balians, who are practitioners of traditional Balinese medicine, prescribe it externally to relieve aches and pains as well as a part of cures for more serious problems. One balian gave me a list of herbs and roots, telling me to mix them in a base of arak.

It's also used in Balinese Hindu religious ceremonies. Typically it's poured from a bottle into a tapan, a ladle made from a banana leaf. The worshiper or priest holds the tapan in the left hand and wafts the essence of the arak with his right hand, often using a flower held between the fingers to aim it towards the gods in a gesture called ngayabang. Then, shifting the tapan to the right hand, the arak is poured on the ground as an offering to the spirits. This second act is called matabuh, which refers to the spilling of a liquid on the ground as an offering to the lower spirits. Arak used for this purpose is very low quality. The good stuff is saved for drinking.



Finding Good Arak
Arak Beras and MaduThe best arak is bought in Bali from a warung (small roadside stand) where they probably make it around back or at home. They fill a plastic bag with arak and tie a knot at the top. You take it home and pour it into an empty soda bottle, fastening it with some of the plastic and a rubber band. It pretty much keeps forever since it's not fermented. You can also buy it in liquor stores, where much of it is distilled in Jakarta, but it's not as strong and really doesn't have that distinctive arak taste. Actually, it's pretty bland compared to good homebrew. Good luck finding arak for sale outside of Indonesia, so you need to grab a friend who's going to Bali and have him or her pick up a couple of bottles for you. If he or she forgets, it can be purchased at the Duty Free Shops in Ngurah Rai airport in Denpasar on the way out. Handy, huh?


Here's some recent word from an arak lover about getting good arak in Bali these days.


Making Arak Madu
Experiment. Start with several shots of arak, squeeze half a lime into it, then mix in a teaspoon of honey. Mix it well. Taste it. Add more lime or honey to get the balance you like.

Other Ways to Drink Arak
Straight shots. Arak and coke. Arak and Seven-up



Bali Hai - Mad Dog's humorous dispatches during eight months in Bali

Traditional drinks - About making arak, tuak, and brem



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Tales of Arak
Anyone of any substance who's been to Bali has tales of Arak. If anyone sends some good ones we'll post them here. I spent many evenings drinking straight arak with Jason Monet, an English artist who lived in Bali, and his daughters. Sometimes it was sitting on his porch/dining room while listening to the BBC World News and hearing tales of his days in London, Fiji and New York City. Other times it was at Nuri's, an ex-pat restaurant and bar which served fresh tuna on Thursday nights. Along with too much arak, of course. It was at Exiles on Saturday night, in Bulan Bar after hours, and at the Jazz Cafe. And way too often the evening ended with everyone heading in separate directions, zipping through the Monkey Forest on motorbikes. Amazingly, everyone lived.


Read Christopher Harvey's story about a long night with arak, "Until the Rooster Croaks."