IF YOU GO to a bar (or, better, when you can go back to a bar) and order a glass of arrack, you will have no real idea of what is in your drink. I don’t mean because the bar might be refilling expensive alcohol bottles with cheaper versions of the same thing (you guys know who you are). No; it’s because the term “arrack,” or “arak,” or sometimes “araq,” can mean many different things.
Alcohol people are actually quite fussy about nomenclature for the most part, refusing to call sparkling wine Champagne if it comes from the wrong neighborhood. “Rum” might be Jamaican rum, or Honduran rum, or even Liberian rum, but it’s always made of sugar-cane juice. But with arrack, the liquor pundits simply have given up, because what you get in that glass depends largely on where in the world you are.
In India and Indonesia (particularly on the island of Bali, where half my DNA comes from), arrack could be anything from a finely distilled spirit made of coconut flower sap (coconut arrack), sometimes with red rice added for flavor (aka Batavia Arrack or Ceylon Arrack) to a muddy swill you buy from an old lady’s stall by the side of the road, served in a common cup from a plastic bucket. I’ve had that version — it was chunky and cloudy, but I didn’t go blind. Sometimes, the drink you get is just made of fermented rice, or even palm sugar or sugar cane … whatever’s around, really, that will reliably turn into alcohol given a chance.
But if you happen to be in the Mediterranean and ask for arrack, you’ll get something completely different, something made of grapes and flavored with anise that is very, very much like ouzo (you even louche it with water like ouzo). In Iran, the word refers to home-brewed wine made of fruit. Ask for it in Sweden, and you’re likely to get some kind of fruity, spicy punch (made with the Asian kind of arrack, usually). If you go to the Sudan and ask for arrack, you’ll likely get araki, which is a distilled liquor made of dates. And, if you happen to find yourself in the South Atlantic Ocean, miles and miles from any major continents, on the island of St. Helena, supposedly your arrack will be made of … potatoes.
Most arrack, even the Mediterranean kind, is home-brew moonshine, so generally in any form, the word refers to something with a dodgy reputation. Traveling in Asia, you’ll hear dire warnings about avoiding the local arrack, although you can find high-end, commercially distilled versions in bottles. As to the word “arrack,” etymological theories about Indo-European root words abound, particularly because arrack is an ancient spirit, the granddaddy of rum, an Old World invention with origins lost in the murk of deep time and the general human tendency to take anything sweet and syrupy and make booze.
But I prefer to believe that arrack is simply the sound one makes when one chokes down a shot of harsh home-brewed rotgut, and therefore it applies to any ingredients equally well. Arrack, to me, is the sound of alcoholic ingenuity, and in an increasingly sterile, professionalized world, I find that refreshing, in a “Mad Max” sort of way.
So what would you get if you asked for it in a bar in Seattle? Hard to say. But if you want a soupçon of adventure in your life, sit down, ask for a shot of arrack (it sounds the same out loud, no matter how you spell it) and bravely drink whatever they put in front of you.