When 45-year old Nyoman Laka accepted a drink from his employer on a cool morning in Ubud, he never imagined he would end up fighting for his life and spending the next two months in and out of hospitals.
For many Balinese farmers and labourers, it is common practice to start the day with a shot of arak, a local spirit made from coconut sap, palm sap or fermented rice. Many believe that arak warms the body and is good preparation for a long day’s work.
Nyoman digs wells for a living, a job that can be especially taxing on the body. On many occasions, his employer would offer arak to the workers before they started to give them a boost of energy. Little did any of them know that the arak he had picked up that day contained the lethal toxin methanol.
“After I drank the arak, I went to the rice field to work, but I didn’t feel well at all, so I went home,” Nyoman says. “Shortly after, I began throw up blood, and then I passed out. I woke up one day later in Sanglah Hospital and could not see properly. One of the guys that I worked with was there as well with similar symptoms, but he died the next day.”
Nyoman was in the hospital for 14 days with methanol poisoning, a potentially lethal affliction that affects the body in a number of different ways. Symptoms include dizziness, disorientation, loss of consciousness, blindness, and convulsions. High levels of the toxin can cause the vital organs to cease working, which can and often does result in death. Nyoman eventually gained back his vision and escaped with his life, but others have not been so lucky.
On New Year’s Eve, 19-year-old Liam Davies ordered what he thought was a vodka cocktail at a bar on the island of Lombok. It was discovered later that the cocktail was actually made with methanol-laced arak. After becoming violently ill, Davies was airlifted to a hospital in Perth, where he was declared brain dead. His family later made the heart-wrenching decision to cut off his life support.
Similar stories of holidaymakers in Bali and Indonesia suffering blindness or dying from methanol-laced drinks have sparked a flurry of newspaper headlines and government travel warnings about the dangers of drinking bootleg alcohol in Indonesia. Arak is particularly vilified as a deadly drink that should be avoided at all costs.
While there is no denying that methanol-laced arak has been responsible for many tragic deaths, arak is also very much a part of the history and culture of Bali. Many Balinese use it in ceremonies – where it is sprinkled on the ground to ward off evil spirits; for medicinal purposes as a remedy for headaches; and in boreh, a traditional body scrub for sore muscles. Arak is the social lubricant of many gatherings and supports the livelihood of many villagers.
The biggest arak production centre in Bali is in Sideman, Karangasem, where more than 300 farmers depend on the local spirit for their monthly income. Local arak producer, Ketut Mertika says, “I learned how to make arak from my grandfather, who learned how to make it from his grandfather. It is a village tradition.”
Every day at 4:00 am, Ketut heads into the forest to collect sap from the leafy shoots that grow on the palm trees on his land. The sap starts out as a mildly alcoholic, cloudy beverage called tuak. “Tuak only tastes good for one day”, says Ketut. “After that it goes bad, so it’s better to make arak with the tuak.”
Collecting palm wine
To make arak, the producers in Sideman distil tuak
in metal stills over a low burning fire, and collect the clear spirit in plastic containers. It takes Ketut about four days to make 28 litres of arak, which he then sells to distributors from the surrounding areas and the cities for about Rp.200K. The higher the alcohol content, the more expensive the arak is.
“We never add anything to the arak that we produce here,” Ketut says.
“Maybe other people want to make more money, so they water down the arak or add things like methanol to make it taste stronger. If our arak made people sick, nobody would buy it and the government would crack down hard on us. Why would we want to lose our business?”
Ida Bagus Rai Budarsa, founder of Hatten Wines and owner of Arak Bali and Dewi Sri Brem, agrees with Ketut.
He says, “The people in Karangasem never seem to have problems with methanol poisoning, so why does it always happen so far from the source? I think the problem is not the arak, it’s the middlemen who tamper with it.”
Budarsa’s family has been producing brem – Balinese rice wine – since 1968, and later expanded to include arak in 1992, followed by (grape based) wine in 1994. The company sells about 1,000 bottles of arak a month, mainly to hotels and shops in Bali.
The arak produced at the Brem Dewi Sri production facility is not only government regulated, but also distilled in copper stills imported from Spain, and then undergoes a series of tests in the Hatten Wines laboratory to ensure that it meets international spirit standards. The company then bottles and seals the arak on site.
Although Arak Bali is made from white rice, which is fermented, pressed and then distilled, Budarsa sees the value in the traditional palm wine that comes from Karangasem.
“In the past, I’ve suggested working with the producers in that area,” he says.
“If they created a cooperative that only certain people could register and join, they could possibly make more money. They could supply us with the tuak, and we could produce the arak in our facilities. But they opted to continue producing and selling the arak themselves.”
While it goes without saying that the arak producers are proud of their product and traditions, once it goes out of the hands of the producers, it can be very difficult to predict what will happen to the product. Unless you buy straight from the producer or a trusted vendor with trusted sources, you can never be sure what goes into the mix.
“I understand that people have concerns about drinking arak in Bali”, says Budarsa. “Of course, even for me, I would not want to drink something that might make me sick. But if you want to drink arak, there are things you can do to be safe.”
Budarsa suggests sticking to a trusted brand, because they have a responsibility to keep the quality high. He also recommends being selective about where you drink.
“If a bar is offering free-flow drinks, think about how they can do that without losing money,” he says.
And herein lies the problem. With alcohol taxes at an all-time high in Indonesia, it makes sense that people would turn to cheaper alternatives rather than the wildly expensive imported spirits available here. Even local producers have a hard time keeping costs low, especially those with small-scale production facilities.
Budarsa says, “If you want to produce alcohol here, you must have a license, as well as a building permit for the facilities, and then you need to register the product.”
Then there are the taxes. In 2010, the Indonesian government increased the excise taxes on alcohol to a staggering 100 to 214 percent, depending on the alcohol content. This effectively created a boom in black market production and sales.
According to a spokesperson from the Directorate General of Customs, “Objects that are charged with excise have their excise tax increased every year, because it is done to protect the health and well-being of our people”.
While the tax increase certainly may have limited alcohol consumption for a large percentage of the population who cannot afford the inflated prices, it has also led others to find imaginative and sometimes deadly ways to cut costs.
In light of this, it should come as no surprise that unethical bar and restaurant owners replace quality spirits with bootleg alcohol, while shady distributors and vendors water down perfectly good arak and add dangerous substances to make it taste stronger.
Since his terrifying ordeal, Nyoman Laka has made the decision never to drink arak again. “I’m so angry and confused,” he says.
“Why would people purposely do something so terrible, when they know that it can kill people? Arak is supposed to be part of our culture, not just something for people to make money off of with no care for human life. That is the opposite of what our religion and culture teaches us”.
A sentiment most of us would agree with, regardless of religion or culture. When it comes to health and well-being, money should simply not be an issue.
However, until there are cheaper options available, arak will continue to be popular and the risk of methanol poisoning will continue to be a very real possibility. For those who want to imbibe, it is better to pay more for commercially produced arak or invest the time to find a trusted producer who truly values his or her product and customers.
Written by Stephanie Mee and previously published in the Yak magazine issue March/April/May, 2013.