Typically the cheapest local spirit available, unregulated arak production has caused the deaths of numerous locals and tourists in Southeast Asia. But what is arak?
Arak, actually an Arabic word, is used as a generic term for a variety of spirits in many cultures. In this instance, we're referring to the locally produced alcohol in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Locals are often encouraged to make bootleg alcohol due to strict laws or high taxes meant to stifle alcohol consumption. This local moonshine, arak, ends up in bars and restaurants across the country as business owners opt for the cheaper stuff to increase profit.
Arak can sometimes contain methanol (also found in paint thinner, wiper fluid, etc) — a highly toxic form of alcohol that causes blindness, coma, and death.
How Is Arak Made?
Arak can be distilled from coconut palm sap, sugarcane, coconut, or less frequently, red rice. Each country has their own separate methods and traditions for creating arak. Slightly resembling rum but varying in color (it is typically nearly clear), arak ranges in strength from 30 percent to over 50 percent alcohol content.
In Indonesia, arak is the local equivalent to moonshine — it can vary widely in strength and toxicity. Because production is illegal, the only way to test a new batch for safety is to drink it. Poor production techniques or deliberate spiking sometimes yield methanol in the finished product. As little as 10 mL of methanol can cause blindness; the median lethal dose is 100 mL (3.4 fluid ounces).
Commercially branded arak can be purchased from shops and minimarts in Malaysia and Indonesia, but homemade varieties can still be incredibly dangerous.
Arak or Arrack?
The terminology for arak has become confusing as the word spread across borders and cultures.
Traditionally, arak refers to the anise-flavored spirit found in Turkey, Greece, and other Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. In both Malaysia and Indonesia, the local spirit distilled from coconut palm trees is also spelled as "arak" rather than "arrack."
Tuak is the milky sap bled from palm trees in Malaysia and Indonesia. Although tuak obtains a low alcohol content rather quickly, it can be further fermented and refined into arak. Sometimes the word "tuak" is still used locally to refer to the finished product.
The Danger of Arak
Annually, arak causes blindness, organ failure, coma, and death to locals and tourists — mainly due to methanol poisoning. Local authorities go to great lengths to keep incidents quiet; drinking deaths are bad in places that depend heavily upon tourism.
Because many varieties of arak are completely unregulated, they often end up being the strongest and cheapest drinks available in an area. Backpackers traveling in Asia on tight budgets gravitate toward the inexpensive drinks which are often appealing in countries where alcohol is taxed heavily.
To stretch profit further, local bars source arak for cheap cocktails from local farmers and entrepreneurs. Arak is even added to bottles of vodka and other spirits to make them last longer.
Death from consuming arak doesn’t just affect tourists. An estimated 10 - 20 Indonesians die daily across the country due to methanol poisoning. Despite being put under increasing pressure by the families of victims, the government has been slow to respond. Indonesian medical staff still receive little training for how to diagnose and treat methanol toxicity.
The problem on islands is often exasperated by the fact that medical facilities are small and unsuited for treating critical cases. Transporting victims off of the islands by boat to larger facilities on the mainland takes too much time.
Arak in Indonesia
The most tourist deaths due to methanol poisoning occur in Indonesia, particularly busy places famous for partying such as Bali and Gili Trawangan. But once produced, contaminated bottles can spread throughout the country. Bottles contaminated with methanol were even found for sale in Bali's international airport!
The "Arak Attack" is a famously cheap cocktail found in the Gili Islands, Bali, and elsewhere. Made in bulk and poured from pitchers, tracking the source and safety of the arak used in cocktails is often difficult, if not impossible.
A bill was signed in 2013 restricting some sales and allowing regional governments to completely ban alcohol if they so choose. Historically, prohibition encourages bootlegging and deregulates the industry, sending more dangerous spirits into tourist areas.
Arak in Malaysia
Arak is commonly used as the generic word in Bahasa Malaysia for alcohol of all types. Arak kuning (yellow arak) is branded as "Monkey Juice" and is the cheap drink of choice for backpacker parties in the Perhentian Islands.
How to Avoid Drinking Arak
Unfortunately, the injuries and fatalities aren't always because travelers are purchasing local spirits from unregulated or sketchy sources. Even popular-brand bottles of vodka and other spirits in upscale bars and clubs have been found to contain methanol. Bar owners switch bottle contents to cut costs.
While ordering Western-brand spirits slightly lowers the risk, some dishonest bars add local arak to all the bottles. The only real way to avoid arak completely is to stick to beer and wine or don't drink at all. Free drinks included with your accommodation or on boat tours are often made with arak.
Some ways to reduce exposure to arak include:
- Stick to beer or wine
- Drink only bottles you open yourself
- Stay away from cocktails that contain clear spirits
- Decline all free drinks (hotel welcome drinks, free cocktails on boats, etc)
- Ask first if the drink contains arak — the answer may or may not be honest.
- Be particularly vigilant in Bali and the Gili Islands.
For More Information
Finding resources and information on arak can be challenging. A Drink to Die from is a Facebook community focused on raising awareness about the dangers of arak. Their nonprofit site is a good source of information as well.