Food Katha: Asava or Arrack

Arrack predates most western spirits from the Western world. In India it was being produced around 800 BC from palm and molasses. Almost 2/3rd of alcohol consumed in India today is 'desi daru'

Toddy tree
Toddy tree
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Mrinal Pande

Arrack is the name given to distilled alcoholic brews produced in South East Asia, India and Sri Lanka. The name itself comes from the Arabic word Arak, meaning alcoholic beverage brewed from sap of the date palm tree.

The Indigenous generic name for distilled liquor in India is Asava. It comes from the root Savan, meaning spilling over. The word Utsav or festival also comes from the same root word and denotes merry making spilling over!

An article published in the venerable Lancet estimated that almost two thirds of alcohol consumed in India today is desi daru. The market consumes 242 million cases with a high growth rate of 7% p.a. Bollywood films have capitalised on Indians’ love for Desi Daru. Comedians like Johnny Walker and Keshto Mukherji played the typical Mohulla drunkard and buffoon to perfection.

Food Katha: Asava or Arrack

To go back to ancient times, a number of varieties or Asava or Sura developed over the years. The royals enjoyed subtler varieties distilled from sugar, flowers and fruits while the Aam Aadmi made merry with Desi varieties distilled out of palm sugar and/or coconut.

The prefix to a particular Asava or Sura, tells you its source: Pushp(floral), sharkara(sugar), Madhvika(Mahua flowers), Sura (grain) and Narikela(coconut). Some that are being sold even today as tonics for women and children as Kumari Asava or MritSanjeevani Sura are said to have medical connotations. They all have a high alcoholic content. Remains of distilleries have been found at sites where the Indus valley civilization flourished.

Later Vedic literature also mentions a drink made from fermented cereals, called Kilala, certain flowers and grass. Ramayana mentions four kinds of alcoholic beverages, Kautilya mentions a dozen and Charakaas many as 84!

Since drinking Asava like Soma (extracted and distilled from the creeper by that name) was a part of both ritual and festivals, many kinds of such drinks were invented over time. They used Palmyra sugar, jaggery, fruits(grape, mango, date, Ber) and also flowers like Mahua and Kadamba. A variety was brewed from Madhu (honey) to which extract of Dhataki flowers was added for ’kick’.

Food Katha: Asava or Arrack

The mostly Kshatriya royals favoured a drink called Maireya. The Kshatriya kings were not allowed grain based alcoholic drinks, so Maireya must have been made from fruits, sugar and flowers.

As the Arabic origins of the name Arack makes it obvious, Indians imported alcoholic beverages and recipes for making new kinds of beverages. Indians also imported wine from Rome in earthen containers, shards of which have been found in Kerala. Two wines made from red and white grapes were also imported from Afghanistan: Kapisyani and Harihuraka. There is also evidence of tribes in the hills of Kashmir and North East brewing their own variations, using fermented rice by the 7th century.

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Arrack predates most western spirits from the Western world. It is variously made from grain or fermented sap of coconut flowers, sap of the palm trees or sugar cane. Earliest versions were made locally from sugar, molasses, water and red rice.

In India it was being produced some eight centuries before the Christian era from palm and molasses. It tickled the western tastes of traders and colonial masters alike, though its earliest consumers were sailors. As refined sugar began being made from sugar cane, many mixed varieties came up.

The Arrack from Dutch Batavia is clear in colour but tastes more like rum. The Sri Lankan Arrack is rated as more subtle and refined by regular drinkers with flavors of good rum with a hint of floral notes. A 16th century Portugesetraveller Pedro Texeira notes that the Indian Arrack is very strong. It improves with age and putting in a fistful of raisins sweeten its rather rough edges.

Like most guests, Sir Thomas Roe was offered a chalice of royal Arrack when he called upon emperor Jehangir. He writes it was clear and flavored with sugar from the barrels that had contained other wines. It was so strong that it made him sneeze! But his chaplain pronounced it to be a very healthy drink, if taken in moderation.


The British term Punch (usually a bowl of alcoholic beverage mixed with fruit juices, rinds and whole spices like clove and cinnamon, drunk in quantities at all festive occasions), is Indian in origin. It come from the word Paanch or five elements (Arrack, sugar,spices, lime juice and water) mixed together.

Toddy or Taadi was also widely distilled in India and continues to be a very popular drink in coastal regions. In 1870-90 in Bengal alone there were 8000 shops selling Arrack and 30,000 selling toddy. It was being brewed in almost every village. Cunning traders that they were, the British soon taxed the drink by creating a still-head duty to be paid like GST today, before any liquor was sold from a store.

The British established their first distillery in 1805 in Rosa near Kanpur. By 1901 there were 14 registered distillers and before India’s Independence in 1947, their number had gone up to 40.

(Author, translator and editor Mrinal Pande is Group Editorial Advisor of National Herald)

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