The Ceylonese Palm

Strategically located in the central-north Indian Ocean, the Island of Sri Lanka has perfect access to the Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea – little wonder that this island nation has always been a crucial part of the Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road. Covering some 65,000 sqkm and with a population of approximately 21.5 million, the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka may have a dominant ethnicity (75% Sinhalese) and religion (70% Buddhist), but this is arguably the melting pot of cultures in South Asia.

A country with more than three millennia of written history, Sri Lanka was either partially or fully colonised by the Portuguese (1597-1658), Dutch (1640-1796) and British (1815-1948) since the Age of Discovery. The Portuguese called the island Ceilão, later anglicised as Ceylon, the official name of the country from 1815 to 1972. The Dutch seized Sri Lanka, along with all Portuguese colonies in Asia except Portuguese India and Macao, from the Portuguese during the Dutch-Portuguese War (1601-1661). The British brought tea, common law and the contemporary lingua franca to the island; to prevent intervention from the revolutionary French First Republic, the British pre-emptively occupied it in 1796. It was not until 1948 that the country became independent, and 1972 when the name Ceylon was replaced by Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is not India; indeed, the difference between the two is apparently clearer than that between Portugal and Spain, or Austria and Germany. It ought to be pointed out at the outset, too, that its national drink arrack is not arak; the only similarity between the two is that both of them have a long list of alternative spellings. Possibly derived from the Arabic word for distillate, Arak is the anise-flavoured liquor prevalent in the Eastern Mediterranean; purportedly derived from the areca genus of palms, arrack is a distilled alcoholic beverage popular in South and Southeast Asia.

Arrack can be made from coconut sap, sugarcane, fruit or grain, which can be distilled once or multiple times, optionally barrel-aged and/or filtered prior to bottling. It is sensu lato akin to rum with a pronounced South Asian accent, but the most representative style is made from the sap of the coconut palm’s unopened flowers. Traditionally collected in the morning by toddy tappers, the sap contains sugar and yeast; fermentation is spontaneous, and the resultant mildly alcoholic drink is called toddy, a palm wine. The sap can also be fermented under supervision, and once the alcoholic strength reaches 5%-7%, it can be distilled, whether by pot stills or column stills, or both. The resultant liquor is arrack.

Now part of the International Distilleries Ltd., the second biggest producer of arrack in Sri Lanka, Aybrook & Mason was established about 150 years ago by Yorkshireman Alfred Aybrook and Alabaman tradesman Thomas Mason. It specialises in two products: Aybrook & Mason Old Reserve and Aybrook & Mason Old Arrack. Having gained popularity in Sri Lanka, Aybrook & Mason products reached the British Raj and Hong Kong in the late 19th century, during the last age of globalisation, only to be abruptly ended by the two World Wars and the Cold War.

Special thanks to Jacqueline P.L. Chan for supplying the sample.

Aybrook & Mason Old Arrack

Aged in Halmilla and Teak vats. Rich amber with luminous copper reflex, the nose is aromatic and sweet, effusing dried peach, sugarcane juice, coconut shreds, marshmallow and lotus. With a creamy mouthfeel and sweet impression, the spiced and tropical palate emanates dried jackfruit, sweet ginger, burnt sugar, curry leaf and turmeric. Medium-full bodied at 33.5%, the potent entry persists through an exotic mid-palate, leading to a long finish.

Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain,
France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages

Categories World of Bacchus