Sunday, May 3, 2009

Batavia Arrak and Swedish Punsch

For my birthday, I got a bottle of Van Oosten Batavia Arrack among other interesting Haus Alpenz products. I've been wanting to try this sugarcane and fermented red rice-based spirit due to its long history of use in punches such as the famous Swedish Punsch.

According to Wikipedia,

It is the "rum" of Indonesia, because--like rum--it is distilled from sugar cane. It is a pot still distillation, a type of still which was influenced by the Chinese, who brought the distillation process to Indonesia.

To start the fermentation, local fermented red rice is combined with local yeast to give a unique flavour and smell of the distillate. It is distilled to approx. 70% alc. vol. Like rum, Batavia Arrack is often a blend of different original parcels.

It should be noted that "Arrack" is a generic term for eau-de-vie in parts of the world, and Batavia Arrack bears no relation to Sri Lankan Arrack or Lebanese Arrack. Also of interest, Batavia Arrack is stored in teak vats, which undoubtedly provide some of the unusual flavors found in this spirit.

On its own, Batavia Arrack smells like rum, but with a distinct woodsy smoky note along with a distinct floweriness. It's not exactly something that I would want to drink straight, but it's quite interesting - unlike anything I've tasted, so comparisons are difficult. As previously mentioned, it's most commonly used in cocktails, most notably punches, with the most famous being Swedish Punsch.

The history of Arrack in Sweden dates back to 1733, per Wikipedia, when the Swedish East India Company starting importing it to Gothenburg. Since that time, it has held a prominent place in Sweden's drink heritage, mostly as a base for punsch. Originally served warm, once commercial versions starting appearing in around 1840, it became more common to serve it chilled.

Swedish punsch combines Batavia Arrack with lemon, tea, sugar and sometimes other spices such as vanilla, cardamom and nutmeg. A number of commercial versions are available, but none in the US at this time. The brand Facile has been planning a launch of their punsch in the US this Spring, but their website is out-of-date and it is uncertain when it will arrive. Also, there has been some word that Haus Alpenz will be introducing a Punsch to the US this summer. Cocktail bloggers everywhere are trembling in anticipation.

For my first punsch, I've chosen a recipe that I found posted on the TikiCentral Forum by Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz.

According to Eric, this is an adaptation of a commercial recipe for Swedish Punsch, and quite close to the Facile Punsch (I haven't tried the Facile punsch yet, but am eager to try).

Punsch "Josephine" Liqueur, 375ml @ ~24%
180ml Batavia Arrack
100ml Water
135g Sugar (Bakers)
3/4 tsp Natural Vanilla Extract (Trader Joe's)
6g Tea Leaves (Assam; equiv to 2 typical teabags)
Peel from one lemon, fresh ground cardamom (I used nutmeg)
Prepare the cardamom: open the pods and crush the seeds. Either add to loose tea leaves or, if you want minimal sediment, place into a tea bag/sachet. Prepare the tea with the cardamom and lemon peel - by this amount it should brew to twice normal service strength. After 4 minutes, remove the cardamom, tea leaves/bags and peel and mix together with the sugar, stir until syrup-like, then add the Batavia Arrack and vanilla. Give a quick stir to further dilute then immediately bottle.

Another recipe that I will most definitely try in the future is from Erik Ellestad's Underhill Lounge blog here.

The Swedish Punsch is intriguing. Despite the fairly heavy use of lemon peel, tea and vanilla, none of these elements are really conspicuous in the punsch. The Arrack is noticeable, but it has been significantly softened by the other ingredients. There is a little bit of a wet-dog smell thing going on here, but I'm not finding it offensive (really). This is good, but again, I'm not sure if I would really drink this on its own. Searching CocktailDB, I came across a number of recipes that sounded good and served as a starting point for experimentation:

Bombay Cocktail (Swedish Punsch, lemon juice)
Boomerang Cocktail (dry vermouth, Swedish Punsch, Bourbon or rye whiskey, lemon juice, Angostura bitters)
Diki Diki (apple brandy or Calvados, grapefruit juice, Swedish Punsch)
Doctor Cocktail (Swedish Punsch, Jamaican rum, lime juice)
Havana (apricot flavored brandy, Swedish Punsch, London dry gin, lemon juice)
Pooh Bah Cocktail (Swedish Punsch, white rum, gin, apricot flavored brandy)
Waldorf (Swedish Punsch, London dry gin, lime or lemon juice)

Tasting Notes -
Bombay Cocktail - wonderful combination of the punsch with the lemon. Could even use a little more lemon for tartness.
Boomerang Cocktail - Bourbon sort of covers up the flavors of the Swedish Punsch resulting in a sweet and fairly uninteresting beverage.
Diki Diki - did not make due to lack of Calvados at this time.
Doctor Cocktail - excellent with the dark rum (used Lemon Hart) still shows a lot of Swedish punsch flavors with nice tartness from the lime.
Havana Cocktail - way too sweet. Not what I want in a cocktail
Pooh Bah Cocktail - I love the name and the feeling of being a Grand Poobah, but the cocktail is merely ok. Better than the Havana but still a little sweet and lacking tartness for balance
Waldorf Cocktail - still on the sweet side, but with the extra lemon/lime juice (used 1 oz lemon, 0.5 oz. lime) a much better balanced drink. Very nice.

Final Verdict -
I like Batavia Arrack - mostly as an ingredient to Swedish Punsch - which I like mostly as an ingredient in cocktails. I can't really see drinking the Arrack or the Punsch on their own. As far as the cocktails, my top recommendations among the ones I've tried so far are the Doctor Cocktail, the Waldorf Cocktail and the Bombay Cocktail. A nice and interesting new addition to my cocktail arsenal.

**Update** - After a trip to Penzey's for some vanilla and cardamom pods, I repeated the recipe above but this time I soaked the lemon peel in the Batavia Arrack for about 6 hours instead of brewing it along with the tea. This drew a lot more of the oils from the peel and resulted in much more lemon zest character in the punsch - an improvement, IMO.

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