How Sri Lanka’s arrack coconut spirit went upmarket

 Source: BBC News

Sri Lanka's arrack

Sri Lanka’s arrack producers are trying to take the spirit upmarket

Distilled from the sap of the coconut flower, Sri Lankan arrack has been a local favourite for centuries. But now its makers are trying to take the spirit global, writes the BBC’s Ayeshea Perera in Colombo.

It’s served in some of London’s most fashionable restaurants, like Dishoom and Hoppers.

And the late food and travel writer Anthony Bourdain described it as tasting like “a marriage of bourbon and rum, but with a stronger, burning kick and a mysterious bouquet”.

Yet the makers of Sri Lankan arrack – best described as a dark coconut rum – believe it is still punching far below its weight when it comes to international recognition and appreciation.

For years, arrack was considered too “low class” to be taken seriously as a premium alcohol, even in Sri Lanka, whose elite in the capital Colombo preferred Scotch whisky, wine or rum.

Arrack is distilled

Arrack is distilled from the sap or toddy of the coconut flower, which is still harvested by hand

Arrack’s makers have also had to survive multiple Sri Lankan governments who have taken the view that while necessary for revenue, the local alcohol industry is a terrible influence on society, rather than a business that ought to be nurtured.

Distilleries are therefore subject to heavy taxes, and advertising spirits is prohibited by law.

Despite these impediments, attempts to raise the quality and profile of the drink at home and overseas appear to be paying off.

Premium versions of arrack have found lucrative markets both in Sri Lanka and other countries, where it is marketed as a smooth, artisan spirit that can be either drunk neat, or used in cocktails.

Amal de Silva Wijeyeratne, the managing director of the country’s oldest arrack producer Rockland Distilleries, is at the forefront of these efforts.

He passionately points to the fact that quality arracks are made from just two ingredients – coconut flower sap (known locally as toddy) and water.

And for him, it’s in his blood.

The sap ferments

The sap ferments naturally after it has been harvested

His great grand uncle, JBM Perera, is credited with completely changing the way the drink was distilled and blended, when in 1924, he accepted a British government contract to produce arrack on a commercial scale.

His innovations, including the procurement of a custom-made still from a French company, helped transform arrack from a crude liquor into a smoother and more sophisticated drink.

Mr Wijeyeratne says he is trying to continue that legacy of innovation.

Part of this was his company’s introduction of an upmarket, barrel-aged blend called Ceylon Arrack, which he says has been made to appeal to drinkers around the world.

And it is making some significant inroads in the global market.

First introduced in the UK back in 2002, which Mr Wijeyeratne calls the “toughest liquor market in the world”, he says that Rockland now sells more Ceylon Arrack to British buyers than those in its home market.

The brand is now also sold in countries like Singapore, Germany and Japan. And there are plans to launch it in India this year.

toddy tapper

Working as a “toddy tapper” collecting the coconut flower sap is not for those who are scared of heights

Singaporean bar Native uses Ceylon Arrack in one of its cocktails, and its owner and head bartender Vijay Mudaliar says it has been a bestseller ever since they introduced it.

“Arrack is a beautiful spirit. The taste profile is very fresh and clean. Aged arracks are definitely a viable choice for any dark spirit drinkers.”

There is no way of really knowing how long Sri Lankans have been drinking arrack, but it is believed to be one of the oldest spirits in the world.

According to Mr Wijeyeratne, that’s because “God has already taken care of the fermentation process”.

What he means by this is that the toddy ferments of its own accord, because it contains both natural sugars and yeasts.

producer of arrack

Rockland is Sri Lanka’s oldest commercial producer of arrack

As soon as it is collected from the trees, it’s a sweet, slightly tangy white liquid. But the fermentation process is rapid and its alcohol percentage increases in just hours to around 6%.

It is then distilled like whisky or brandy to an alcohol level of more than 60%, before water is added to bring that back down to 40%.

Global Trade

More from the BBC’s series taking an international perspective on trade:

However, collecting the coconut sap is not for the faint hearted.

In a process that has remained unchanged for generations, men known as “toddy tappers” twice a day shimmy up the unnervingly tall coconut palms – a fully grown tree can reach 60m (200ft) – to collect toddy from the unopened flowers.

Sri Lanka’s four major arrack producers – DCSL, IDL, Mendis and Rockland – employ hundreds of tappers on their vast coconut estates.

With each tapper given a group of trees to look after, they stay high above the ground for hours, using crude rope bridges to move between trunks.

Together the four firms produce about 60 million litres of arrack a year, in different grades and mixes.

Arrack on the beach

Sri Lankan arrack has become increasingly popular both in Sri Lanka and overseas

The price and quality of arrack has a lot do with the percentage of actual toddy in it.

While the premium versions are made from 100% distilled sap, cheaper blends – which are somewhat erroneously called “Extra Special Arrack” – are usually also made from molasses, a form of treacle.

Some of the most basic versions of arrack can actually contain as little as 3% toddy.

Although lower grade arrack still accounts for almost 70% of sales in Sri Lanka, the premium versions are making Sri Lankans feel that they can take pride in the drink.

“Many Sri Lankan CEOs I meet tell me that they don’t travel without a bottle of arrack as a gift for their high profile international clients,” says Mr Wijeyeratne.

He adds that changing the perception of the drink continues to be a slow but rewarding process.

“It takes years and years. You have to be willing to go for the long haul.”

“It’s still going to be a long time before arrack gets the attention and recognition it deserves.”


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eLanka Newsletter: April 2019 1st edition: Sri Lankans in Australia – News, Photos, Events & Articles

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Nalini de Sielvie is a Sri Lankan-born Melbourne author whose recent novel Thistles in the Wind has made it on the world stage. Published by Authorhouse (UK) in November 2018, it was displayed at the Tucson Book Fair, Arizona (US) Campus, in March 2019, and is also available on Amazon, online book stores and at Australian libraries……….

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The International Monetary Fund on Friday revived a $1.5 billion bailout for Sri Lanka that was suspended over a government power struggle last year that seriously slowed economic growth. The Washington-based lender said officials visiting Colombo agreed to re-activate the three-year loan, which started in 2016 and spread the instalments over an additional year.”The team reached understandings at the staff level with the Sri Lankan authorities… to allow more time for the completion of the economic reform agenda,” the IMF said. The Fund had been due to release an instalment in October when President Maithripala Sirisena sacked his Prime Minister and called fresh elections, triggering a two month power struggle in the island nation. …..

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Let us discuss today, the importance of checking your blood pressure regularly.When you are 40 and over, it is advised that you check your BP annually.Owning your own BP apparatus would be an impetus for such recordings, regularly When you are a kid, your heart works beautifully with absolute, no strain. This is attributed to the fact that all your arteries -major, minor and minute tributaries to the fingers and toes are expandable, elastic and mobile, and not stiff, causing no resistance to the pumping action of your heart.

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eLanka Newsletter: April 2019 1st edition: Sri Lankans in Australia – News, Photos, Events & Articles

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EXQUISITE LIQUORS – Colombo No 7 & London Dry Gin & Ceylon Arrack

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Colombo No: 7 London Dry Gin

Colombo Gin




Colombo No: 7 London Dry Gin

Colombo Gin consists of just seven simple spices and botanicals – each with a unique role. Together, they create a complex aroma and distinctive taste.

Primary Ingredients: juniper berries, coriander seed, angelica and liquorice root. Secondary Ingredients: Sri Lankan cinnamon bark, curry leaves. Tertiary Ingredients: ginger root.

Colombo Gin is a definitive London Dry Gin with an unusual list of ingredients. The juniper is distinctive in taste and aroma; surrounded by a beautiful medley of subtle spice notes that, together, create an unexpected harmony. Our gin is handcrafted in small batches from
copper pot stills to create a distinctively exceptional, distilled London Dry Gin.





Gaja-singha is an ancient mythical beast with the head of an elephant and the body of a lion; symbolising the significant wisdom of the elephant and the courage of a lion with unmatched strength.

The elephant symbolising the wisdom to pioneer the first gin to be manufactured in the Indian Subcontinent when the island Ceylon and her capital city of Colombo was still under her majesty’s government. The lion to symbolise the courage to use ingredients that were not the norm; daring to remain distinctly different to any other gin, whilst still being a definitive London Dry Gin.

Colombo Gin is British Asia, symbolised through our trademark lion elephant.


In the days of old Ceylon, British Excise Officers did not believe that a good London Gin could be produced outside of the United Kingdom. Despite this, a young Asian distiller pursued the idea of creating a gin in Ceylon’s public gardens. His efforts paid off; new regulations were drafted to allow the manufacture of gin in Colombo; Ceylon Made Foreign Liquor (similarly the ruling was also applied to India and a new regulation called India Made Foreign Liquor was created around the same time). These regulations remain today to allow the manufacture of gin and other non-native spirits.

Given the lack of foreign spices during the war, our distiller’s gin recipe at the time included native ingredients that were easily sourced at Colombo’s Cinnamon Gardens. The only imported spices in the recipe were juniper and angelica root. Once war was over and trade routes reopened, the original mix of ingredients were abandoned in favour of the traditional London dry gin recipe. Today, Colombo Gin has returned to its original wartime recipe, created through a combination of historical events and one man’s passion for a beautiful spice garden. Colombo Gin is the original, revived.


A Colombo Gin and tonic is a complex, bracing world of sweet, sour and bitter. We believe that it is best served in a large burgundy glass with a twist of lemon rind and black or pink peppercorns, but simply mixed with a good quality tonic, some ice and a slice of lemon also makes for a rewarding drink.

Naturally, Colombo Gin complements Asian Cooking, making it a fine tipple to accompany food with spice, especially curry.



Distilled from the sap of the coconut flower and aged in Halmilla Wood. Ceylon Arrack is one of Sri lanka’s finest Arracks. A rare handcrafted Arrack.

To this day every batch of Arrack receives the personal attention of the Rockland Family Master Blender.

Awarded a medal of Commendation by the international Wine & Spirits Association.

Tasting Notes: A medium-light bodied Arrack, with complex but gentle floral and light citrus notes with a hint of coconut and honey. 

How to Drink – Excellent poured over ice and topped up with ginger-bear, ginger-ale or cola with chilled coconut water. It is also a wonderful base for classical cocktails and punch or on its own as an digestive. 

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