An upcoming recipe requires something called Swedish Punsch, and being Swedish (I don’t know about Brian, but I am if you go back far enough) it seems culturally appropriate for us to make this beverage from scratch instead of resorting to the only commercial version available in the U.S., Kronan, and only using a measly ounce or two. So we set upon this project with alacrity, or arrackrity, because the main ingredient in Swedish Punsch is the enigmatic and misunderstood Batavia Arrack, a spirit that has come all the way from Indonesia for the past 300 years.
If we compare the history of rum to the history of visual art, arrack would be the rum equivalent of cave drawings of mastodons. Arrack is a proto-rum made from fermented Javanese sugarcane and red rice cakes. This liquid is distilled in Chinese-style pot stills then “aged in large teak vats for several months,” according to medicinalmixology.com. Arrack became popular in Europe as an early ingredient in punches and can still be seen as a fairly common proto-tiki ingredient in early bartending manuals.
There is a problem, however, and that is—by all accounts—Batavia Arrack tastes awful. Near the end of its factual and unopinionated description of arrack, medicinalmixology.com notes: “If you enjoy this stuff straight, then you are hardcore my friend. Really hardcore.” Stevi Deter at twoatthemost.com calls it “simply undrinkable.”
So of course we have to get some.
Instead of just buying a bottle of Kronan (a finished, delicious Swedish Punsch—or so we hear), we will instead buy an entire bottle of the more expensive Batavia Arrack van Oosten and endeavor to make this thing ourselves. Makes sense, right? This is right in line with what The Rituals is trying to accomplish: futility. And knowing that Haus Alpenz—who brings us such goodies as Smith & Cross Pot-Still Rum and Rothman & Winter Crème de Violette—is the importer of Batavia Arrack van Oosten, I am even more intrigued.
It is true: Batavia Arrack is challenging—and I mean that in a good way. After a wonderfully spicy, citrusy nose, the arrack’s smoky alcoholic sting barges in and bumrushes you toward a nasty, punishing, interminable finish. In some way it is the inverse of that Southeast Asian horror-fruit, durian, which smells awful enough to be illegal on the subway—but then tastes like heaven afterward. Batavia Arrack is indescribably hard to drink—it is rough and it is funky and it lets you know that you are alive and that life is pain. According to the Haus Alpenz website, however, we are missing the point: “Batavia Arrack had then as now the extraordinary effect of elevating the aromatics of the spices and citrus notes. While historical circumstance eventually curtailed the availability and affordability of Batavia Arrack, it remains a highly sought ingredient for boutique chocolatiers and pastry chefs.” Chocolatiers! Arrack is clearly meant to be combined with spicy and citrusy things, like punches. And pastries! That is, unless you are making it as moonshine in Indonesia, in which case you hardcore enough to enjoy it neat. However, Wikipedia helpfully mentions that “such illicit production may result in methanol-tainted arrack that can lead to death.”
But Stevi Deter insists at twoatthemost.com that in Eric Ellestad’s version of Swedish Punsch “the arrack is much tamed down and the aftertaste I noticed drinking it straight is gone.” There are a few Punsch recipes online, but because of this bold claim we go with Erik Ellestad’s Underhilll Punch. This version seems the most grounded in reality and also the most legitimate because Ellestad made a bunch of it for Tales of the Cocktail a few years back. We wind up substituting Appleton V/X rum for the El Dorado 5 Year and make a much smaller batch than he did because, well, because we have fears. There, I said it. Fears.
SWEDISH PUNSCH (1/8 of the Tales of the Cocktail recipe)
3 1/6 oz. Batavia Arrack van Oosten
6 1/3 oz. bottles Appleton V/X Rum
1 lemon, sliced thin and seeded
3 1/6 oz. water
1 tsp loose black tea
1/4 crushed cardamom pod
1/2 cup sugar
Put the lemon slices, rum, and Batavia Arrack in a quart jar, seal and let steep for 6 hours. Make a tea with the water, tea, and cardamom fragment, let steep 6 minutes, then strain through cheesecloth. Add sugar and let cool. Strain rum and arrack off lemons (do not juice the lemons) and mix with tea. Let the mixture sit at least overnight, then bottle and enjoy.
Seems easy enough. I head over to Brian’s and we get busy making this infusion. Lemon slices, rum, arrack. Check. Then I’m off. Brian gets up at 1 A.M. to make the tea with cardamom, strain, cool, and add sugar. He adds the infused rum/arrack mixture and goes back to bed. In the morning we have Swedish Punsch, but it isn’t until a couple of weeks later when we actually try it at my place, with our special guest taster Jason in attendance.
Some tasting notes from that day:
Brian: It has a weird aftertaste to it.
Eric: It is weird. It just keeps going.
Brian: It’s thicker than what I expected.
Eric: It’s syrupy. I don’t know if I would drink this by itself.
Brian. I, for one, would NOT. (laughs)
Jason: Having any more than this would be rough. The finish is really bitter.
Eric: It smells better than it tastes. By far.
Brian: It smells WAY better. After my initial sip, I thought, “Oh, this is nice…” And then that feeling totally went away.
Eric: It gets worse and worse and worse. It’s a steady decline. I think our Swedish Punsch is a failure.
Brian: I don’t know. Is it supposed to taste like this? Did I use the wrong black tea? Is there not enough cardamom in there? I don’t know.
Eric: I have to think that’s what it’s supposed to taste like.
Conclusion: Anyone who says they like the taste of this is lying. I like the idea of liking the taste of it, but that is not really the same thing. Maybe I could learn to like this with my rapidly evolving old man palate. It’s hard to imagine drinking this for pleasure. We are curious about the Kronan Swedish Punsch, however, and whether it tastes even remotely like this failed concoction in front of us. Apparently, Brian’s friend Jesse has some and Brian is thinking of trading him a partial bottle of Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao for it. We’ll see how that goes.
Postscript: The punishing finish of the Arrack never really went away, in spite of all of the spicy/citrusy commingling of the Punsch. In fact, I can still taste it.