When you think of spirits that date back centuries — your gins, your whiskeys — odds are “Batavia Arrack” is not a name that pops into your head. But this Indonesian spirit, made on the island of Java, distilled from sugarcane and fermented red rice, was all the rage in the colonial era.
It starred, most often, in punches between the 17th and 19th centuries. The history of punch is tied up in trans-continental colonial trade, and Batavia Arrack was brought to Europe by the Dutch East India Company. It’s called for by name in dozens of punch recipes from the mid-19th century. But it fell out of favor by the turn of that century, while rum grew increasingly popular, and was only recently brought back to the United States in 2007 (by Haus Alpenz, many a cocktail nerd’s favorite importer of obscure international bottles).
On its own, it’s a bit puzzling, with a taste like a funky rhum agricole. But its slightly rough-around-the-edges quality can be quite appealing in cocktails — as the colonial Brits knew, and as we now do as well.