If last Sunday's New York Times T magazine is to be believed, Batavia arrack is one of the "New Staples"--one of the top ingredients of the season. If that's the case, then never has one spirit gone so far so fast, from a century-plus of obscurity to must-have status in the liquor cabinet.
Produced since at least the early 17th-century on the island of Java, Batavia arrack is rum's funky ancestor. Made from sugarcane and fermented red rice (one quibble with the Times story: while Sri Lankan arrack made from palm sap has a similar name, it's a totally different creature), this smoky, aromatic spirit was a mariner's favorite for years, and was an essential ingredient in punch until well into the 19th-century. Eventually supplanted by rum, Batavia arrack faded from the back bar and the liquor store; in recent years it was primarily found close to its Asian roots, as well as in parts of Northern Europe, where it appeared in chocolates, desserts and sweetened, flavored punches.
And so it would have remained, had not a small but thirsty market of vintage spirits geeks in the U.S. persuaded Eric Seed, a Minnesota-based importer and principal at Haus Alpenz, to start bringing this obscure ingredient into the country. Now, 11 months after the first bottles began turning up in higher-end bars and liquor stores, the paper of record has dubbed it a staple.
I don't know if I'd go that far, but I will say that Batavia arrack is worth investigating. The flavor is a bit coarser and more rustic than many spirits out there now, but the arrack has a distinctive aroma, somewhere between Haitian rum and single-malt Scotch, that makes it an interesting ingredient to work with. Accented with spice, citrus and black tea and softened with sugar, the arrack also makes a memorable punch that tastes something like history. Batavia arrack isn't the easiest thing to find, but if you do some searching, the result will be worthwhile.
About the author: Paul Clarke blogs about cocktails at The Cocktail Chronicles and writes regularly on spirits and cocktails for Imbibe magazine. He lives in Seattle, where he works as a writer and magazine editor.