These anecdotes have been taken from a wonderful 1983 document written by J.P. Rupasinghe presented at a 1981 symposium on palm sap products.
It starts with acknowledgement of a checkered history, there is a tale of fraud, later a gargantuan tragedy, and an ending with revelations of terroir. If this is the first tale from this vantage point I’ve ever found, are others likely to be equally so good?
I would now wish to relate some anecdotes in my 30 years of experience as an excise officer in the checkered history of the excise department. As a young Superintendent of Excise on first appointment, working in Jaffna, living with another officer who now is Head of another department I have something interesting to say. My colleague was used to take a bottle of fresh toddy in the morning instead of his bed-tea as in his opinion it was more invigorating than the tea. Tasting palmyrah toddy especially during week ends was a passtime and was real fun. The best palmyrah toddy that we had encountered in the Jaffna District and its neighbouring Island was found in the villages of Keerimalai and Senthan Kulam in the Kankesanturai area. The sap from the male palmyrah tree in these areas far excelled any other toddy found in the Jaffna district. I feel the strain of the palmyrah trees found therein and the soil and climatic factors matter in bringing about this condition in toddy. When I came soon afterwards from Jaffna in charge of the State Distillery at Seeduwa there was an Asst. Government Analyst on loan to this department for brief period of 2 years at a time. However, the toddy supplies to the State Distilleries at Seeduwa were obtained from contractors who had their topes in the Chilaw area and they were paid on the pure toddy (alcohol) content of 7.5 % on the gallonage supplied depending on the strength of toddy supplied as indicated by the Ebulliometer test conducted by our officers located at the distillery. It was found that large quantities of toddy received had reached the final stage of fermentation and the toddy did not appear genuine. With the collaboration of the Govt. Analyst at the distillery a random test check was done on suspicion for the presence of starch as there was a rumour that boiled rice water was used in preparing this synthetic toddy. One application of this starch test the results were startling and positive. Starch being not a component of toddy the next obvious thing we had to do was to roll the barrels down the drain leading to Dandugan Oya near-by, to find most of the distillery employees were happily waiting at the far end of the drain away from our sight and having their fill. However this action of destroying such toddy had its desired effects and the problem of synthetic toddy was solved. [They probably used iodine to test for starch.]
When I was at Kalutara thereafter in charge of the large storage and bottling warehouses in the Island I happened to be on leave and the young Superintendent attending to my work had been informed that a large vat containing about 3,000 gallons of over proof arrack was leaking. Perhaps it may have been a simple job for a cooper to stop the leak but this young Superintendent had decided to transfer the arrack to another empty vat near by with the aid of a hand pump. Somehow the operation went on till dusk and the warehouse being newly constructed there were no lights. The hand pump had been used to hard work and suddenly the vat went up in flames, a porter who was on top of the vat hit the warehouse ceiling and fell into the burning vat and must have died instantaneously because what we recovered of him for burial was only his pelvic bone. All attempts to bring down fire was in vain and the balance vat containing overproof arrack, 48 in number, had started bursting like Chinese crackers and a good 100 thousand gallons of overproof arrack was lost in the process. This happened in or around 1957. [Friction from the pump built up intense heat and ignited the high proof spirits.]
Apart from the severe loss suffered by the department at this stage we were faced with the problem of giving the renters arrack for the taverns they had tendered and a solution had to be found to bridge the gap. This was a time the Gal-Oya and Kantalai Distilleries had ample stocks of rectified, spirits which they were prepared to sell. Samples of rectified spirit and coconut arrack were taken by me to the Government Analyst Department in order to find out a suitable blend for issuing to the public as an alternative to coconut arrack. The Government Analyst Department reported that a blend of 2 of coconut arrack to 1 of rectified spirits would be a satisfactory solution. Thereupon the first such blend was prepared by me at Kalutara and the employees (always hard and inveterate drinkers) were asked to taste and express their opinions. They did so with glee, and that was the birth of what is presently known as Special Arrack or ‘Gal’ Arrack. These proportions are not said to be maintained now and what is put out to the market as special arrack is said to contain more rectified spirit than coconut arrack. The consequences or effects that the consumer of this arrack would have in the long run could be a matter for study. Perhaps the recent census showing a negligible increase in the population may be a result of this.
[When we would assume the special style was developed merely to cut costs, it was actually a response to a catastrophic loss due to a great tragedy. Its easy to miss so many of the stories a spirit can tell.]
The late Mr. Mervyn de Silva during his stint of service at the State Distillery experimented with the action of wood shavings on arrack in bottles and on his advice I got a miniature vat constructed, and having placed Halmilla wood shavings, roasted slightly, packed in cylindrical stainless steel wiremesh inserted inside the miniature vat we found that Arrack could be made to mature quickly. A usual 5 year maturation in a vat could be reduced to 2 years by this method. However after we went and took up positions elsewhere in the departments it was found that the few gallons of arrack left in the miniature vat was so good in bouquet and taste that it had an excuse for going fast ”evaporated.” Any how this method is still being used on a large scale at the distillery for quick maturation. [“evaporated” means they enjoyed it so much they drank it, but because they record everything for tax purposes, they wrote it off as evaporated.]
In 1968, I went to France on a French Government Scholarship to study the distillery practices in that country, and I had the good fortune to visit many manufactories in that country. What struck me most was the strain of grapes used to distill Brandy in the Cognac district of France. These grapes unlike the more edible and sweeter grapes in the rest of the country were remarkably sour in taste, and year in year out the same grapes, farmed in that district, were used for the distillation of the more prestigeous Cognacs like ‘Hennessy’ or ‘Remmy Martin’, so much so that the saying goes that ‘a Cognac is a Brandy’ but ‘all Brandies are not Cognacs’. The Armanages, the Salyangnecs, the Polynagcs are all Brandies with distinct flavours produced in specified districts. However, in Sri Lanka we have been slaughter tapping the coconut tree in the tapping belt of Kalutara and allied areas for years. To feed the distilleries therein, the State Distillery has had its supply of toddy year in year out from specific areas. The coconut trees found in these tapping areas are presumably of different strains in as much as ‘Kurumba Water’ taste different from different coconut trees, the sap tapped from the spadices thereof must necessarily be different. I say this as a pointer to those who would like to study this aspect intensively because we are still to find the equivalent of the Cognac district and the particular strains of coconut trees to obtain our toddy to produce a better arrack.
[The strange spellings are all the author’s own. I think one might be a corruption of Salignac, the Cognac house. This passage is wildly profound and it makes you wonder how many people visited Cognac and came back similarly inspired in places we would never suspect. And this was 1981, has their market matured enough since to capture terroir? Can arrack make the jump from commodity to fine? I hope so.