Monday, November 29, 2010

Liquid: Arrack attack

Like anything else that people get really, really into - Internet porn, for example - once you've started chasing the infinite possibilities inherent in mixing cocktails down the boozy rabbit hole, you need to work harder to make things interesting. That's why desensitized tipplers turn to increasingly exotic cocktail ingredients and esoteric recipes to get that dopamine going. So while we covered the trend of tiki cocktails a while back in this magazine, the idea of plain old rum drinks just doesn't get our rocks off anymore. Yawn. What else you got?

Fortunately for our city's shark-like bar scene - which is forever swimming forward, devouring anything and everything in its path - there are still largely unknown spirits to discover when regular old missionary-position bartending just isn't doing the trick. One of those spirits, Batavia Arrack, is pushing tiki-style cocktails to another level, giving mai tais, zombies, punches, and the like that extra pinch of strange to spice things up. Batavia Arrack, which is basically an Indonesian "rum" made from sugarcane and fermented with red rice, does that both literally and figuratively, with its smoky, spicy profile. Hungry Mother, Rendezvous, and other bars around town are using it to give a new kick to rum cocktails and the people who drink them.

You might say Batavia Arrack falls somewhere between a smoky Scotch and a spiced rum on the spirit spectrum, and that malleability is what's giving bartenders a brain boner for it. While it can be rather tough to sip on its own, it's ideally suited for adding complexity to multiple-rum-based cocktails or recipes like Swedish Punsch. "The spirit itself has a long history of being used in classic punches prior to the creation of the cocktail," explains Bob McCoy, head bartender at Island Creek Oyster Bar (500 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.532.5300). There, he's used it in a concoction called the Jakarta Punch ($10), shaking it with house-made spiced honey syrup, lime and pineapple juices, house-made cinnamon syrup, a dash of Angostura bitters, and six drops of absinthe - a heady blend of late-fall flavors. The drink, whose name nods to the capital of Batavia Arrack's country of origin, was created as "something to both quench the thirst and warm the spirit during the cold season ahead," says McCoy.

Next door at Eastern Standard (528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.532.9100), Jackson Cannon and his crew have been infusing the spirit with lemon, orange, cardamom, clove, and green peppercorn for a cocktail called the Flying Dutchman ($10), which also features St. Elizabeth's Allspice Dram, pineapple juice, crème de cacao, and 'Elemakule Tiki Bitters. "The cocktail has got a touch of chocolate, and allspice dram, which is really fiery, and a little pineapple juice for acid," says Cannon. The bartenders at Il Casale (50 Leonard Street, Belmont, 617.209.4942) likewise use allspice dram to bring out Batavia Arrack's smoky spice notes; the two ingredients are combined with ginger beer and orange and lime juices in the Sumatra ($9), which blasts the spice through the roof.

Joe Camm, general manager of Gordon's Fine Wine & Liquors in Waltham and Watertown, is somewhat surprised that Batavia Arrack is just picking up steam now. Although he still sees it as a spirit best suited for the serious enthusiast, "It's interesting to try on its own," he says, comparing it to cachaca. "But no one drinks that straight. For the most part, it's meant to be a mixer; it's meant for highlighting of citrus and cocoa flavors. With the resurgence and interest in classic cocktails, I guess it makes sense that it would be making a comeback right now," he says.

Whether anyone besides the "What's next?" crowd will bother using it at home is up for debate, says Camm. But the challenge of working with a tough ingredient like this is precisely what makes it appealing to bartenders jittery for their next fix.

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