In an 18-acre coconut garden at Rockland Distilleries in Naththandiya, just north of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, Roy Jayalath starts work early in the morning. Jayalath climbs tall swaying coconut trees to collect the milky white sap from their blossoms. Balancing on two coconut ropes, he walks on these tight ropes from tree to tree until he collects enough sap to fill a pot. Coconut sap is the raw material for coconut arrack, an alcoholic beverage unique to Sri Lanka. Although this method of sap collection, known as toddy tapping, has been around in Sri Lanka for around 2,000 years, arrack has only recently begun to reach hip bars and foreign shores.
High quality coconut arrack contains only two ingredients: sap and water. When fresh from the tree, the sap is sweet, tart and slightly spicy, with a strong coconut scent; it contains natural sugars and yeast, allowing the sap to naturally ferment into a wine-like drink called grog, with an alcohol percentage of around 4%. A few hours after extraction, the alcohol content increases to around 7 percent. The toddy is then distilled like whisky; the alcohol level rises to around 60%, at which point the drink is then diluted to 40% and aged in vats made of Halmilla wood (a tree that grows in the Asian tropics) for at least three years before the liquid is gone bottled.
The garden employs six ‘toddy tappers’, including Jayalath, now 56, who tapped out his first toddy aged 13 after watching his two uncles climb coconut trees. Jayalath now climbs the trees twice a day: once in the morning to collect the sap, and again later in the day to tap each tree’s unopened inflorescence, or flower cluster, with a mallet to stimulate the toddy flow. He collects sap from 100 trees every day.
Rapti Dirckze, conservation manager at Rockland Distilleries, says toddy tapping is a generational craft passed down from father to son, but notes that it’s hard to find young tappers today, despite the fact that a skilled tapper can earn a living wage of around 120,000 rupees ($470) per month. “People think it’s a low-status job, so the younger generation wants to find other jobs,” she says.
The children of Jayalath, for example, have moved on to other manual work, he explains, pressing his palms together and reciting a prayer before climbing a tree. “[The prayer] protect me,” he says with a smile. “The hardest part is climbing. Most people think rope walking is scary. Not for me. I’m used to it.”
There is little evidence to suggest the origins of arrack, but according to oral history, centuries ago toddy was given to elephants in the king’s army before battle. Robert Knox, a British captain who spent 19 years in Sri Lanka in captivity, wrote in his 1681 book A historical relation of the island of Ceylon that the captives distilled arrack to drink. In the mid-1600s, the Dutch began commercial plantation of coconut palms on the west coast of Sri Lanka and exported coconut arrack to Malaysia and several Indian destinations.
“We call this region the toddy belt of Sri Lanka,” says Dirckze, noting that this region stretches from Chilaw in the north to Matara in the south. “The best toddy is from here.”
Sri Lanka has had a complicated relationship with arrack over the past few centuries. When the British took control of the coastal belt of Sri Lanka in 1796, they took control of the arrack trade. Arrack production slowly declined over the following decades. There were many reasons for this, writes Michelle Gunawardana in the book Arack’s Adventure: Not only did importing countries impose heavy taxes, but the British East India Company also later banned the transport of arrack and discouraged imports into Britain. By the 1830s, the British had also tightened local production, ensuring that only licensed entities could produce and sell arrack. The British government then created the Department of Excise, which exists today, to control the illegal trade and only allow large producers to produce the drink.
Around the 1960s to 1970s, when the supply of coconuts dwindled due to severe droughts and labor shortages, some distilleries began producing Gal Arrakku, alcoholic blends containing arrack and other neutral spirits. Because Gal Arrakku does not usually include a lot of coconut, it is much cheaper than traditional arrack. The prevalence of cheaper alternatives labeled arrack as a low-class drink, says Dirckze.
In recent years, however, Sri Lanka has seen a resurgence of interest in coconut arrack, as mixologists around the world are beginning to champion this once overlooked spirit.
According to Nadira Jayasuriya, development manager at Botanik Bistro & Bar in Colombo, local distilleries like Rockland are driving much of this push, and customers are spreading the word on social media. She believes the growing enthusiasm is a sign that people are becoming more interested in local ingredients. “There is a global trend to highlight all that is local. The pandemic has made it even clearer,” she says, explaining that COVID-related restrictions were limiting imports and causing people to pay more attention to locally available ingredients.
“People used to not come to a bar and order arrack, but now they do, even when we have whiskey or scotch on the menu,” says mixologist Dhanushka Dias, who developed the cocktail menu. at ColomBar, an arrack-focused bar. hosted at the Cinnamon Lakeside Hotel in Colombo.
ColomBar’s assistant restaurant manager, Mischel Bandara, agrees. “ColomBar started as a destination bar to introduce Sri Lankan elements like coconut arrack to foreign tourists,” he says, “but it’s become so popular with locals. People come to order bottles of arrack now, not just glasses.
Rockland now produces several varieties of coconut arrack, including a new premium blend called Ceylon Arrack, which is a blend of 3, 7 and 10 year old arrack. The taste is clean and sweet, with a robust coconut aroma.
A cocktail developed by Dias is called Dodola, made from Ceylon arrack, coconut milk, jaggery, nutmeg and cardamom. The flavor is reminiscent of the popular Sri Lankan sweet dodol. “When I told customers I had arrack cocktails, they were reluctant,” he recalls. “But I was confident. And I was right. They loved it.”
Dias also created a cocktail called Padikkama, which tastes similar to bulath wita, a local mixture of betel leaves and betel nut commonly consumed after meals. Dias named the drink after the trays on which his grandparents served betel leaves – padikkama. “My idea was to develop cocktails with local elements, and when I thought about the days I spent with my grandparents, I wanted to recreate those flavors,” he says.
Another factor contributing to the growing attention to coconut arrack is the growth of tourism. “When foreigners come here, they don’t want to sip a Scottish gin cocktail. They are asking for something local, something that belongs to us,” says Jayasuriya. Botanik Rooftop Bistro & Bar serves two Ceylon arrack cocktails, both made with many local ingredients: one includes pandan, royal coconuts and kithul molasses (made with the sap of the palm tree). fish tail), while the other includes tamarind and passion fruit. “We had no idea how customers would react, but these are now our bestsellers,” he says.
Mixologist Nabeel Kenny, who works at the upscale restaurant Monsoon Colombo, also sees demand for arrack among tourists. “Customers ask us if we have arrack-based cocktails,” says Kenny, who also develops arrack-based cocktails.
The popularity of arrack is no longer limited to Colombo or Sri Lanka. Coconut arrack is now a crowd favorite in London, where the ingredient is served in cocktails at trendy South Asian restaurants like Hoppers London and The Coconut Tree. Even famed bartender Ryan Chethiyawardene, who was raised in Birmingham by his Sri Lankan parents, uses the spirit in cocktails.
“Arrack, one of the oldest and almost forgotten spirits of my homeland, has a very special place in our bar,” says Indika de Silva, owner of cocktail bar Toddy Tapper in Germany. His hope is to offer a “cultural taste journey” with flavors and ingredients less known to the German public. One of the bar’s most popular cocktails is the Jack & Jill, which features Ceylon arrack, cardamom, jackfruit, and calamansi, among other ingredients.
Despite historical hurdles, Sri Lankan distillers and mixologists are reclaiming their pride in the centuries-old tradition of coconut arrack and redefining it in innovative ways. “When someone says Mexico, people think of tequila. I want the world to think of coconut arrack when they hear the name Sri Lanka,” says Dias, “It’s our history and our culture mixed in one drink. We have to celebrate it.