It’s not uncommon to find history repeating itself in the drinks world: Early modern cocktails are ripe for revival, disco is back, and many of the world’s oldest and most storied spirits are making a comeback.
Such is the case for Batavia arrack, a funky molasses- and rice-based spirit that originated on the Indonesian island of Java. Named after Java’s 17th-century, Dutch-colonized capital, Batavia arrack is among the oldest-known distilled spirits, and predates even rum (which would later surpass its predecessor in popularity, playing a part in pushing Batavia to the back shelf).
Trade routes brought the spirit to the Western world, where Batavia arrack enjoyed great popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, establishing itself as an essential ingredient in punch—also a colonial import from the same region.
By the late 1800s, though, new import taxes and the increasing popularity of rum nudged Batavia arrack out of fashion, and by the time World War II broke out, almost all production of Batavia arrack in Indonesia halted while the region fell under siege. It wasn’t until 2007, when Haus Alpenz started bringing Batavia arrack back into the United States—with the guidance of punch expert and cocktail historian David Wondrich, the importer settled on the van Oosten brand—that the spirit began reappearing on cocktail menus. Whether through introduction via punch, old bar manuals or tiki-obsessed compatriots, bartenders have embraced the spirit’s unique flavor.
“Batavia arrack is similar to a vanilla bean or a chunk of fresh horseradish. By themselves, their existence seems erroneous: How could something that tastes like that be useful in any way?” says Guillermo Bravo, a Chicago-based beverage director. After a few failed encounters with the spirit, Bravo was lured into taking shots of the stuff at a Tiki Tuesday event at Featherweight in Brooklyn, where, whether from maturity or simply the charm of time and place, he finally got it. “It was like understanding that obscure band your too-cool friends are obsessed with. Something in my palate and brain just clicked,” Bravo says, describing the flavor notes as “vegetal leather, fermented apricot and that fuel-soaked clove taste.”
Though on its own, the spirit skews divisive, when used in conjunction with other flavors it can be transformative. “I use Batavia arrack like a spice,” Bravo says. “It succeeds greatly in small amounts if the cocktail is subtle. If the cocktail has a lot of character, Batavia arrack can provide a heavier underlying palate.”
In his Jakartian Peardition, it does the latter, providing a foundation for pear brandy and sherry, whose warmth is complemented by spicy cinnamon syrup and tart citrus, effectively turning a “bright, summery” drink into something warm and fortifying.
Other bartenders are immediately struck by Batavia arrack’s close similarities to rum. Patrick Williams, of the restaurant group Angevin & Co., says, “It is closest to rhum agricole in comparison,” but with a “malty” finish, making it a suitable, though slightly unexpected, substitute in classic drinks. Williams uses it in his riff on the Hemingway Daiquiri, the Hemingway in Europe, in which he contrasts those round, funky notes with super tart grapefruit syrup, fresh lime and maraschino liqueur. Caer Maiko, co-creator of the Austin-based pop-up Daijoubu, likewise combines the spirit with a blend of citrus (lemon, pomelo, mandarin, yuzu) in her Adios Motherfucker riff, Hello Motherf*cker.
Porchlight beverage director Nick Bennett, a big fan of the spirit, shares the rum sentiment: “The first time I ever really came across Batavia arrack was while I tended bar at the (now-defunct) rum-based bar El Cobre,” he says. “So, it will always be associated with rum in my head, which isn’t too far from the truth. It is, essentially, a funky Indonesian ancestor to rum.”
With that principle in mind, Bennett created the Seven Seas Swizzle, which combines the spirit with bittersweet green tea–infused cane syrup and bright lime, for a riff on the Queen’s Park Swizzle (one of Bennett’s favorite cocktails).
Batavia arrack remains, undoubtedly, a more divisive spirit than others that are simply misunderstood, forgotten or pigeonholed. But used strategically—whether in punches, as a rum replacement or as an unexpected seasoner akin to aromatic bitters—it can be a powerful tool in the cocktail-maker’s arsenal, albeit one with repercussions.
As Bravo puts it: “This is only recommended if you can endure the hangovers.”