If you have Sri Lankan friends, the chances are that one or more of them have urged you to taste his country’s arrack with a “Machan, Sri Lankan arrack, bloody good, no?” If the brew is a premium aged version – say, a faintly sweet and surprisingly smooth Mendis triple-distilled – bloody good it is likely to be.
And why not? The process, from coconut sap to finished product, is as elaborate as that with other spirits – the fermentation and repeated distillations ending in ageing, up to 15 years for the finest products, in halmilla-wood vats and casks.
If Sri Lankan arrack doesn’t get the press it deserves, it is partly because of poor packaging and the lack of aggressive worldwide marketing. It is also – and importantly – because of the lack of an informed critical literature about the product, a body of writing that distinguishes, for example, a seven-year old from a ten-year old or throws light on the difference between a Mendis and something from another manufacturer.
“Bloody good” is accurate, but it doesn’t do anything for the product.
The same may be said of some types of feni. Goa’s heritage liquor may have received a GI (geographical indication) mark some years ago, but its manufacture is unorganised and bereft of standardisation. I have been unable to lay my hands on an erudite piece on the subject.
Wine of course has a rich body of literature. Single malts make a stab at emulating this, often by mystifying the manufacturing process. Even vodkas have their muses, though the vocabulary is very limited – “smooth”, “crisp”, made from “cold climate grain,” etc.
Possibly, the only non-western alcohol drink that has produced a wealth of critical and informed writing is sake. Given the way it’s made, sake is more beer than wine. But like wine, it has a detailed taxonomy – classified into types and differentiated on the basis of how the starter mash is made, how it is stored or treated after fermentation, whether it is pure, cloudy, has added distilled alcohol, etc.
Today, tasting notes for sake are crafted like those of wine. Like winemakers, those who brew sake (tojis) are held in great regard, their skills looked upon as much as an art as science. Ever heard of a fenimaker, leave alone a celebrated one?
The best way for a novice (such as myself) to get acquainted with sake is to sip different types of it in the company with someone who knows the subject. I did that the other day with Ankur Chawla, restaurant manager and sommelier at Wasabi, the upscale Japanese restaurant at the Taj Mansingh hotel in Delhi.
Wine remained a reference point and it helped to liken the easy and accessible Junmai Yumedono as a Chardonnay and the intensely herbaceous Yoshinogawa Gokuyou as a Sauvignon Blanc. Having tasted some nine varieties in his company, I may have learnt a wee bit about sake, but that is not the point of this column.
It is to say that while standardisation, regulation, marketing and packaging all have a role in the promotion of drinks such as feni and arrack, these are not enough. It would be just as important to create a body of critical literature about them. Your taste buds may lie in your mouth but your sense of discernment is fashioned by your vocabulary and your language.