What is Arak? Arak is a highly alcoholic spirit and traditional home-brewed beverage in Indonesia. Think…stills, firewater, hootch, moonshine, red-eye, rotgut and you’ve got it. Imported alcohol can be taxed 400% in Indonesia so locals brew their own. Chances are you’ll be offered a drink of Arak somewhere in Indonesia. I strongly suggest you take a pass unless you are 100% positive your glass of Arak was brewed safely, and carefully. Four foreigners died of alcohol poisoning in July 2009, a few days after our Java/Bali trip. At last count, 23 tourists have died in Bali and Lombok from Arak while other foreigners and locals have been taken ill. Victims drank Arak tainted with methanol, known as wood alcohol, and used in rural Indonesia as fuel for lanterns.
It is illegal to sell alcohol without a license in Indonesia but according to Ricardos, the government looks the other way because it is part of the culture. No important event, ritual or ceremony takes place without Arak. Different varieties of Arak are distilled from grapes, anise, grain, molasses, plums, figs and potatoes in other parts of the world. You may know these libations as: Arak, Ouzo, Raki, Mastika, and in Iran, “Dog’s sweat!”
Stands began appearing along one particular stretch of road displaying filled water bottles. Indonesians used old water bottles to hold and sell everything. They obviously weren’t filled with gasoline/petrol (a deep yellow color that looks like urine), soft drinks or distilled water. The liter bottles were filled with Arak, made from the male fruit of a particular palm tree. The finished alcohol content ranges from 40-45% and more than 100 proof. Enough to knock the strongest person flat on their back if they don’t go blind first.
How to make Arak?
- Men climb a particular species of palm that bears male fruit, and squish the fruit daily while still on the palm tree for five days. (Squishing male fruit daily sounds obscene but that’s exactly what they do.)
- The fruit’s liquid drips into a bucket high on the palm tree.
- The Arak makers climb the palm on the sixth day to get the juice bucket which is then distilled over a wood fire.
- The clear liquid drips through a bamboo pipe into a 1-liter or 2-liter water bottle.
The first dripping of Arak is the most powerful while the second and third proofs are only 20% alcohol and 15% alcohol, respectively; still enough to get a good buzz going. Ricardos insisted on igniting some Arak for us to see how strong it was. (I bet pouring Arak, instead of kerosene, around a dwelling could set off a nice fire). And then the owner offered samples of his strongest distillation, 50-63 alcohol content, 100+ proof firewater! Even though his Arak was supposed to be very pure, we nicely refused. (Entire process in the video below.)
A liter bottle of the first dripping cost 100,000 IDR ($10 U.S.); 45,000 IDRs for a smaller bottle (less than $5 U.S.). Now that you know what we know about Arak, drink at your own risk.
Views of the sea, volcanos, and the hill town of Bajawa, situated at 1,200 meters/3,600 feet above sea level was in sight. This Ngada district is one of the most traditional areas in Flores. Tomorrow, we’d visit Luba and Bena, two megalithic villages. Our small hotel for two nights was Bintang Wisata, located in the heart of Bajawa next to the market, shopping areas and restaurants. This hotel was adequate, filled with tourists, had spacious rooms with attached bathrooms, and hot water.
Lunch at Lucus, one of the three restaurants that cater to tourists; the other two are Camellia and Ditos. Lucas was the only game in town on Easter Sunday, and we settled in for noodles, rice and chicken sate while rain thundered down on the tin roof so loud, it was impossible to hear or talk over it. Eating lunch at 3:30p has one advantage: think of it as combo lunch and dinner to extend your budget.