When I was a teenager, nearing the joyous day when I could legally order alcohol, my tipple of choice was cheap cider – sickly sweet stuff which I didn’t particularly like and which gave me horrendous hangovers, but which was the cheapest alcoholic drink on offer at my local (unscrupulous) off-licence. If only I’d had the wisdom of Bina, the Balinese bartender and arak expert I meet at beach club-turned boutique resort Potato Head, perched on Bali’s southern coastline.
In Bali, the drink most likely to cause those first, painful hangovers is arak. Like many Balinese, Bina – now an arak expert whose cocktails are legendary – grew up around this ancient spirit, typically made from either coconut palm flower or rice, and produced in vast quantities by community distillers tasked with making enough arak not only for villagers to drink, but to use in various ceremonies and blessings. But its strength – this type of arak typically has an ABV of around 50 and 60 per cent – meant Bina steered clear of imbibing outside of ceremonies. “When I was younger all my friends drank it, and they’d have awful hangovers,” says Bina, who provides me with an insight into its cultural importance. “Its importance stems partly from the fact that arak is often made from rice, and in Bali we offer part of our harvest to the rice goddess, Dewi Sri. It’s a way of saying thanks. For us, rice is sacred, and so is arak, and there’s this sense that arak is connected to the gods.”
Sadly, this wasn’t a viewpoint shared by the tourists gleefully knocking back cheap shots of home-brewed arak produced by a handful of unscrupulous distillers, none of whom were regulated. Numerous hospitalisations and a handful of deaths tarnished a drink which had never been intended for mass consumption by foreigners. Until, that is, Bali governor I Wayan Koster saw the potential to transform arak into a cultural heritage product – similar to mezcal or saké – and introduced regulations in 2020 which meant arak sold in bars, restaurants and shops could only be produced in regulated distilleries (none of which existed at the time).
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Previously, the lack of consistency meant the only places to obtain arak – beyond community…