A welcome outcome from the now decade-long focus on authentic craft cocktails is that many obscure ingredients from dusty cocktail books are now available on store shelves and backbars. American spirits importer Haus Alpenz has been particularly instrumental in reviving obscure ingredients, including Batavia Arrack Van Oosten, an older sibling to Caribbean rum. However, in the decade since its release, the Van Oosten’s unusual, raw funkiness hasn’t led to its widespread adoption. Thus, I was recently surprised to see another importer bring a second Batavia Arrack into the U.S. Having tasted and used this new expression from By the Dutch, it’s a very different animal and worth a fresh look. Before jumping to tasting notes and recipes, let’s dig in to a bit of Batavia Arrack history to set the stage.
Rum and Batavia Arrack are essentially sibling spirits, born in different parts of the world. Around the same time rum was getting underway in the Caribbean in the mid-1600s, Chinese sugar growers were also distilling molasses in what’s now Indonesia. In fact, some evidence points to Indonesian distillation starting decades before it began in the Caribbean.
There’s one critical distinction between the Caribbean and Indonesian molasses distillate: Both use yeast to cause fermentation in the molasses and water wash, but different yeast strains lead to the creation of different organic compounds (esters) during fermentation, causing different flavors in the resulting spirit. In the Indonesian version, the distillers mix a bit of fermented red rice with the yeast before adding it to the water and molasses mix to begin fermentation. Naturally, the influence of the red rice on the yeast impacts the resulting flavor of the spirit.
Beyond the red rice, rum and Batavia Arrack have a similar production process, with Batavia Arrack double distilled in pot stills to around 65 percent ABV. With only this small difference in production methodology, it’s not a stretch to see why labeling Batavia Arrack as “Indonesian rum” helps people understand the general concept, although in this era of intense interest in rum categorization, some disagree with the rum designation.
A short digression on the Batavia Arrack name: “Arrack” is a general term for distilled spirits, regardless of whether the source material is molasses, palm sap, fruit, or something else. In the 1600s, the best molasses-based arrack was made by distillers in the Batavia region of Indonesia, now known as Jakarta. While molasses-based arrack was also made elsewhere, it was considered to be of inferior quality. As such, Batavia Arrack was considered the superior product in some circles. This is somewhat akin to saying “Scotch whisky” today, as opposed to just plain “whisky.” In modern usage, the phrase Batavia Arrack differentiates molasses-based arracks from non-molasses distillates.
So picture this story, in the late-1600s. Both Indonesia and the Caribbean colonies are ramping up production of molasses-based distillates, sending it by the shipload back to their colonial masters in Europe. Indonesia was controlled by the Dutch at the time, so the majority of the Batavia Arrack is flowing to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, whereas Caribbean islands like Barbados and Jamaica are sending their rum primarily to London. Europe has a steady supply of rum and Batavia Arrack flowing into a few key hubs and being distributed across the continent. London is rum central, while Amsterdam is Batavia Arrack central. Merchants in both cities begin a tradition of aging their imported spirits and then blending them to create a variety of expressions, each with a consistent flavor profile.
Historical records from the time suggest that Batavia Arrack was generally considered superior to Caribbean rums. It found particular favor in Sweden, where it was used as an ingredient in Swedish Punsch, along with sherry, water, sugar, and spices. In other countries it became a key flavor component of liqueurs, candies, and pastries. But make no mistake, rum and Batavia Arrack were both found in great abundance in drinking establishments across Europe in the 1700s and 1800s.
One of the key European importers and distributors of Batavia Arrack during this time not coincidentally is our present-day link to the Batavia Arrack available today– Amsterdam-based E&A Scheer, one of the most interesting yet unknown stories in the world of distilled spirits. Originally a shipping trader of various goods, by 1860 E&A Scheer was focused nearly entirely on importing, aging, blending, and distributing of Batavia Arrack, although they also dealt with rum in much smaller quantities.
Fast forward to the years just prior to 1900. The competition between Batavia Arrack houses in the Netherlands led to a few collaborating to corner the market, creating intense pressure on other Batavia Arrack companies like E&A Scheer. The company responded with key acquisitions that turned it into one of the dominant players in the space. Unfortunately, over the next fifty years, the two world wars, various temperance movements, changing consumer tastes, and other challenges led to Batavia Arrack being much less in demand than it once was in its heyday. In the U.S., Batavia Arrack effectively became unavailable.
Throughout these tumultuous times for the spirit, E&A Scheer doggedly stayed in the game, acquiring other dealers, and by the 1980s it was the only game in town, albeit for a greatly diminished world market. Luckily, back in the early 1900s the company had wisely expanded its footprint in the rum trade, utilizing the same skills in aging and blending rum as it did for Batavia Arrack. Today, E&A Scheer is a major player in the global rum market, importing from more than 25 distilleries to its warehouse in Amsterdam, blending them for various brands, and exporting to more than 45 countries.
E&A Scheer creates custom blends for brands like Denizen, Gunroom Spirits, The Duppy Share, and some bigger names you might guess but who haven’t officially stated they’re E&A Scheer customers. Interestingly, the Gunroom Spirits actually uses Batavia Arrack as one of its components in its Navy Rum. I was extremely lucky to visit E&A Scheer’s offices in Amsterdam and get a rare, behind the scenes look. It’s a fascinating story, and one you really should read.
Despite the current focus on rum, E&A Scheer stills trades in Batavia Arrack, not only for the spirits market but also for use as flavor/aroma enhancers in the confectionary, tobacco, and perfume industries. This brings us to the bottle at hand: By the Dutch Batavia Arrack. While the brand doesn’t explicitly mention E&A Scheer, it’s 99.9995 percent likely that the Dutch company, founded in 2015, sources its product from them. (Note: The U.S. importer is Preiss Imports, out of California.)
The first thing you notice with the By the Dutch bottle contents is the faint orange hue of the spirit. Poured side-by-side with the Haus Alpenz Van Oosten, it has much more color to it. The By the Dutch label says it’s a blend of Batavia Arracks aged up to eight years in oak barrels, bottled at 48 percent ABV. In contrast, the Haus Alpenz bottle comes in at 50 percent ABV, and its label and web site say nothing about aging.
Tasting the two expressions side by side, the Haus Alpenz version is pungent, raw, and a bit oily–not that there’s anything wrong with that for a hardcore spirits lover. By way of contrast, the By the Dutch shows the clear effects of aging. It’s more refined and smooth, and could pass as a moderately aged rum with a fair amount of funk and just a hint of sweetness. As an aficionado of funky rum, I happily consumed more than a few drams neat after opening the bottle for the first time.
Of these two Batavia Arracks, the By the Dutch version is far more approachable as a substitution in cocktails requiring punchy, funky rum. My first experiment was to sub it for the two ounces of rum in the classic 1944 Mai Tai recipe:
- 2 oz By the Dutch Batavia Arrack
- 1 oz lime juice
- 0.5 oz orange curacao (e.g. Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao)
- 0.25 oz orgeat
- 0.25 oz 1:1 simple syrup
Shake with ice. Serve over fresh crushed ice in a double old-fashioned glass.
The results were quite pleasing. I’ve subsequently enjoyed it in an (as yet unnamed) Negroni pattern variation:
- 1.5 oz By the Dutch Batavia Arrack
- 0.75 oz Punt e Mes
- 0.75 oz Ramazzotti Amaro
Stir with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with an orange twist.
You could also play it a bit straighter, mixing it 1:1:1 with sweet vermouth and Campari to make something you might call a Jakarta Negroni:
- 1 oz By the Dutch Batavia Arrack
- 1 oz sweet vermouth
- 1 oz Campari
Stir with ice. Strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with an orange twist.
The key takeaway here with the By the Dutch Batavia Arrack is this Much like you would refrain from judging a rum producer by a single expression or a rum producing country by just one bottle, treat Batavia Arrack the same way – as a category with diverse flavor profiles. If you fancy yourself someone who appreciates and uses a wide variety of rums in their cocktail creations, By the Dutch’s Batavia Arrack should be on your radar.