What is Arak?

Indonesia's Famously Cheap Spirit Is a Dangerous Gamble

Arak in Indonesia
••• A homemade still producing arak in Indonesia. Photo by Greg Rodgers

Arak is a generic term used for a variety of spirits found in Asia, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and some parts of India. Typically the cheapest local spirit available, unregulated arak production has caused the deaths of numerous locals and tourists.

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.

Arak is often the local equivalent to moonshine -- it can vary widely in strength and toxicity. While commercially branded arak can be purchased from minimarts in Malaysia and Indonesia, homemade varieties can still be incredibly dangerous.

Slightly resembling rum but varying in color and sweetness, arak ranges in strength from 30% to over 50% alcohol content.

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 spelled as ‘arak’ rather than ‘arrack.’

Tuak is the milky sap bled from palm trees in Malaysia and Indonesia. While tuak obtains a low alcohol content rather quickly, it is further fermented and refined into arak.

Sometimes the word ‘tuak’ is still used locally to refer to the finished product.

The Dangers of Arak

Arak has been known to cause blindness, organ failure, coma, and death, mainly due to methanol poisoning. Batches of homemade arak are cut with methanol -- a solvent that is unfit for human consumption -- to save money and to create a stronger product.

Methanol is not a byproduct of creating arak, it is added deliberately by the people distilling the spirit.

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 cheap drinks which are often appealing in Islamic countries where alcohol is taxed heavily. To increase profit margins, local bars source arak for cheap cocktails from local farmers and entrepreneurs. These unscrupulous individuals are often just seeking a profit and have little regard for the wellbeing of tourists.

Arak in Indonesia

The most tourist deaths due to methanol poisoning occur in Indonesia, particularly busy places such as Bali and the Gili Islands. But once produced, contaminated bottles spread throughout the country.

The 'Arak Attack' is a famously cheap cocktail found in the Gili Islands, especially Gili Trawangan. Made in bulk and poured from pitchers, tracking the source and safety of the arak used in cocktails is often difficult, if not impossible.

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 parties in the Perhentian Islands.

Find Something Else to Drink

The injuries and fatalities don’t just happen to travelers who purchase 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. While ordering Western-brand spirits slightly lowers the risk, some dishonest bars add local arak to bottles to increase profit margins. Contaminated bottles of vodka have even been found for sale at the Bali airport.

Death from consuming arak doesn’t just affect tourists. An estimated 10 to 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 poisoning.

The problem is exasperated by the fact that medical facilities on popular tourist islands such as Gili Trawangan are small and unsuited for treating critical cases. Transporting victims off of the islands by boat to larger facilities often takes too long.

With fatalities on the rise, the problem of poisonous arak in Indonesia is expected to escalate as taxes increase on all alcohol sales. Religious groups in Indonesia have pushed for country-wide prohibition for years. 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.

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 blog is a good source of information as well.