Singular Spirits. Part I: Mendis Special Ceylon Arrack

I intend a short series highlighting spirits I keep in the cabinet, but only try occasionally, maybe two or three times a year. The first is Mendis Arrack, from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka of course is the former British Ceylon, long a Crown colony and independent since 1948.

I’ve mentioned Sri Lanka in connection with beer and tea, but not spirits. A compact history of spirits production in Sri Lanka is offered in this useful essay at Wikipedia. There are four spirits producers in the country specializing in the country’s distinctive arrack.

Similar terms to arrack, of course, are known elsewhere in the world, especially arak of the Middle East, but here I refer to Sri Lanka’s spirit, which is distilled from the running sap of coconut flowers. The sap is collected by expert “toddy tappers”.

The leading producer is Distillers Company of Sri Lanka, or DCSL. In an impressive annual report of 2019-2020. DCSL outlined the history of arrack. A brief extract:

 

The Sri Lankan flavour that lingers on… The pristine ambrosia-like qualities of Sri Lanka’s unique coconut arrack can be traced back many centuries, finding mention in early literature – “…liquor drawn from the coconut flower”. This renowned beverage is steeped in legend and tradition, making it one of the most celebrated offerings from Sri Lanka to the world. Sri Lankan coconut arrack is undeniably one of the purest naturally derived alcoholic beverages in the world, distilled through a natural fermentation process. Sri Lanka has perfected the technique of making coconut arrack through the years. Today, it has acquired the perfect balance for the discerning palate and coconut arrack reigns as the alcoholic beverage of choice in the country.

With an attractive art layout the report goes on to describe the production technique, and pictures ten brands and qualities of the company. One is described as:

SRI LANKA ARRACK

A 100% coconut spirit, matured in Halmilla vats, producing a woody character and exceptional smoothness.

DCSL is by far the largest producer of arrack in Sri Lanka. Second in rank is IDL, or International Distillers Limited. Both are reputed for high quality. The attractive halmilla vats at IDL can be seen in excellent photos in this site, based in Italy it appears and possibly the importer there for this producer.

The vat staves and dark brown colour reminded me of mahogany. The wood when new is lighter, a species widespread through Southeast Asia. It is used for building and many other purposes.

The text states some oak is used to age the spirit as well, while elsewhere in the site teak is also mentioned (the main page where the company history is limned). Halmilla is the classic wood.

It offers the right degree of porosity and staunchness, while giving a characteristic flavour. The spirit is distilled by producers with the usual mix (in international distilling) of pot and columnar stills. So both “straight” and blended versions are available.

(Open vats painted green are probably fermentation vessels; the narrative accompanying the images suggests this).

A less costly product may blend aged arrack with neutral spirits – as everywhere, a range of qualities is offered suitable to market and purse. The third producer is Rockland Distillers, the last Mendis.

 

 

Mendis went through a rough patch in recent years, having not paid excise taxes due to the government. Its license was suspended, but was reinstated last summer. This story from last July in News First contains further detail.

Mendis is a well-known surname in Sri Lanka, carried by persons eminent in different fields such as historiography, sports, and industry. The Mendis who founded the distillery, which dates from the 1960s, in 1988 wrote a memoir which Beer et Seq is ardent to read.

It is catalogued among other places in the National Library of Australia. On our to-get list. (Much harder than getting, usually, is the time to read).

There are a number of YouTube videos on Ceylon arrack which interested readers should pull up to add to the picture. I am not concerned here with cocktails calling for arrack, an off-piste ingredient in Anglosphere cocktails going back to the 1800s at least.

I will seek merely to describe the palate. The Mendis is 34.2% abv, so a somewhat lower level than the norm of 40% and up, but strong enough! It is soft in the mouth, somewhat floral, with certainly more than a hint of the halmilla that coddles it to maturity.

To a Westerner such as myself, the wood taste is different from the various oaks used to store spirits in this Hemisphere. For lack of a better term I’d call it bamboo, a spicy, warming note. Very pleasing. The liquor itself is somewhat brandy or whisky-like, or perhaps like rum of the golden or white hues.

Indeed something of all three may convey the best impression.

Some years earlier, I bought from our LCBO in Toronto a DCSL brand that had a much stronger taste. It had a similar wood shading as the Mendis, but also a funk-like note the latter lacked, not dissimilar to some Caribbean rum, agricole and that type.

You see it pictured in the Wikipedia link mentioned.

I preferred the Mendis, but all this depends on one’s taste. I take just a little you know, backed by a stout, usually. Sinha Stout from Sri Lanka, putatively the one to choose, is I find too strong, at almost 9% abv.

I prefer a medium-gravity porter or stout, traditional UK or Irish type, and it backs the spirit to a t.

I wish Mendis well for its return to the market,* and will track when the next shipment of Special Ceylon Arrack arrives in our cold northern clime, so distant from its place of manufacture. Perhaps the spirit will reach new heights given the… untapped years spent in halmilla vats of burnished burnt sienna.

I was going to use the word fallow, but that’s not quite right, is it.

*As one of the sources I read stated, sales following resumption of business will allow taxes due to be paid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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