If you're like most people - or most Americans, at any rate - you've never heard of an arrack. I hadn't until recently, myself.
So...what is it? Good question. The folks over at Imbibe have taken a crack at it, which is more detailed than what I'll go into, but here's a basic summary.
"Arrack" seems to derive from "arak," which was once the generic Arabic term for any distilled spirit (more on this later). The word made its way east, to India and Indonesia, where it entered the Western vernacular during the colonial period.
Batavia arrack, pictured above, is one of the types. Produced on the island of Java, its base is overwhelmingly sugarcane, with a splash of red rice to kickstart fermentation. That makes it a very close cousin of rum.
Interestingly, according to the link above, Batavia arrack was considered much ritzier than West Indies rum in centuries past. The better sort of people consumed it conspicuously. It was all the rage in northern climates, particularly Sweden, where the famous (in cocktail circles) Swedish Punsch was made with an arrack base.
van Oosten is the only Batavia arrack I'm aware of that can be found in the United States, so I have very little to go on when assessing their arrack as an arrack. I have no other reference for what an arrack should taste like, after all. The best I can do is say whether I enjoy it or not.
So far, I've only tried it neat, which I gather is not how it's most often used. But, one must know one's ingredients in order to mix them. Given how it's made, I'd have predicted something that tasted like a rhum agricole with a little note of sake. I would have been totally wrong.
Fundamentally, it reminds me of the white rums of the Caribbean. It has that same juvenile acridness that even the finest unaged rums retain. At the same time, it's fruity. Specifically, it's grapey. It carries that same strange raisin note that some brandies and most grappas do. The difference being that, while the note hardly merits comment in spirits which are actually grape-derived, how on earth they got it out of Indonesian rice and sugarcane is quite beyond me.
"Fascinating," is probably the best word. I don't believe everyone would enjoy it straight, as an after-dinner drink - although some would, and the same is true of grappa. I'll add further detail when I've experimented with it in cocktails, which, I believe is where it will do its best work.
Now, if you're curious about the Roman numeral in this post's title, that's because I'm barely scratching the surface of things called "arrack." This is the first entry in a mini-series of posts, dedicated to digging deeper into what was for me, until recently, a great unknown unknown in the cocktail world.
It's refreshing, every once in a while, to be reminded that there are things you've never even heard of.