Indonesia’s local spirits: alcohol’s history and geography in the world’s largest Muslim nation
Although alcohol is heavily taxed in the country and frowned upon in Islam, alcoholic drinks have long been a part of Indonesia’s many cultures. From arak to sopi to tuak, we take a look at the island nation’s indigenous tipples
The Japanese have sake, the Koreans can’t get enough soju, and the Chinese are partial to baijiu. So how about locally made alcohol in Muslim-majority Indonesia? Perhaps surprisingly, a good number of alcoholic drinks are made throughout the world’s largest archipelago.
Indonesia doesn’t make life easy for drinkers. Alcohol is expensive, with import duties set at 150 per cent. Additionally, a ban on small retailers selling alcoholic drinks was introduced by the government in 2016 in a bid to curb consumption.
Still, drinking is an inseparable part of the indigenous culture in many local communities across Indonesia, where it often plays a large role in religious festivals and social gatherings. Local drinks are traditionally brewed – often in a backyard – typically by fermenting rice, sugar cane, coconuts or palm sugar, and flavoured with herbs or other ingredients.
These drinks have been around a long time. On walls of the famous Borobudur temple in Yogyakarta, ninth century bas reliefs depict drink vendors and imbibing locals.
Evidence of Indonesian drinking culture is also mentioned in the Yingya Shenglan, Ma Huan’s account of Ming dynasty Chinese Admiral Zheng He’s naval expeditions. Ma mentions that when their ship made it to the island of Java, they saw natives getting drunk on tuak, a local drink made from the sap of sugar palm trees.
Here is a taste of six indigenous brews:
Not to be confused with the traditional Levantine drink of the same name, Indonesian arak originated in Bali and is distilled from glutinous rice or palm sugar sap, then mixed with flowers and fruits from palm trees. The alcohol content is high: up to 50 per cent.
Traditionally, this drink was used as a tabuhan – offering to the gods – during religious rituals. Today, even upscale venues on Bali serve their own arak mix. Arak Attack is the best known cocktail – with a dash of grenadine and a generous serving of ice-cold orange juice.
A speciality of South Sulawesi province, ballo is made from the sap of the lontar tree – a native Indonesian palm – and is often served in a bamboo cup. There are two types of ballo; the sweet and smooth ballo tanning, which has an alcohol content of up to 10 per cent, and the pungent, sour and stronger ballo kacci.
You can try ballo at Tana Toraja, home to the Toraja ethnic group. The drink is often consumed during religious rituals or during social gatherings.
Ciu is indigenous to Java island, notably the towns of Banyumas and Solo. This clear spirit has two variations – sugar cane-based and cassava-based – with an alcohol content as high as 70 per cent. Locals believe drinking ciu is good for the health, classifying it as jamu, or traditional medicine.
It has a strong taste that some liken to vodka, so social drinkers tend to mix it with soft drinks. Common mixtures are cisprite (ciu and Sprite), cicola (ciu and cola), and cias (ciu and tamarind juice).
Sopi is legendary in the eastern part of Indonesia, especially the Maluku Islands and Flores. The local favourite dates back to the Dutch occupation in the 15th century. Its name was derived from the old Dutch word zoopje, which means “little drink”, and it is affectionately referred to as anggur persaudaraan, or “brotherly wine” in local culture.
Making sopi takes up to 10 days. It is distilled from sweet palm sap, mixed with crumbled husor root, and fermented inside a bamboo stalk. Some prefer to drink this slightly sweet, tangy drink straight, while others infuse it with herbs and roots, such as ginseng.
Swansrai is a kind of coconut toddy brewed in the Papua region. It is also called milo, short for minuman lokal, or “local drink”. It has a strong, slightly bitter taste, and an alcohol content of up to 30 per cent. Locals usually offer swansrai to honour guests, and it is often served in a coconut shell.
Variations of this palm sugar drink can be found in many parts of Indonesia. In Lombok, for example, tuak is distilled from the flower essence of palm sugar trees, and mixed with roots and herbs. In the Batak community of North Sumatra, the blend includes dried fruits to create a fresher, sweeter taste.
Tuak is light, with an alcohol content of up to 8 per cent, so locals have no qualms about drinking it daily. In some regions, tuak is referred to as bir panjat, or “climbing beer”, in reference to the climb involved to reach the flowers.