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Food & Travel

Jan 10, 2013

War on arak: how to get drunk in Bali without getting blind

Australians have died and been blinded by dodgy drinks in Indonesia. Crikey intern Jemimah Clegg investigates the mysterious beverage that is arak, why people are drinking it -- and what can go wrong.

The foreign affairs department yesterday updated its travel advice on Indonesia, warning Australians to be cautious when drinking spirits, particularly the popular liquor arak. The warning comes after the recent death of Perth teenager Liam Davies, who was poisoned after drinking a cocktail containing methanol on Lombok.

In September 2011, Perth-based New Zealand rugby player Michael Denton died after drinking a cocktail containing methanol in Bali. Days earlier, Sydney nurse Jamie Johnston suffered brain damage and kidney failure after drinking arak (which contained methanol) on Lombok. A Sydney school-leaver was blinded after drinking arak in Bali in December last year.

So what is arak, why is it so popular — and so dangerous?

The Australian Medical Association also has concerns, recently advising travellers to Bali to stick to bottled beers like Bintang and avoid spirits altogether. But with cocktails available for as little as five Aussie dollars, many people are still willing to take the risk.

In January 2012, Melbourne administrative worker Nathalie Appere (then aged 21) had a bad experience drinking arak in Bali. She told Crikey she spent the night bar hopping in well-known tourist area Kuta, and drank “double drinks” (which have a high arak content) and bottled drinks that contain a mixture of arak and other spirits.

Appere spent the next day in her hotel bathroom, violently ill from the night before. “I woke up at 6am after a crappy couple of hours sleep and vomited for seven hours straight. Anything I ate or drank came back up within minutes,” she said.

Arak is a traditionally brewed liquor made from rice and coconut palm flowers. It can contain up to 50% alcohol. If it is not brewed correctly it can contain methanol, making the drink potentially fatal.

The Australian Medical Association of Western Australia has called for the Prime Minister to work with the Indonesian government to hold the bar which served Davies accountable for his death. “How many people need to die or be maimed before something is done? How many travellers need to be injured before both Australian and Indonesian authorities decide action is needed?” President Dr Richard Choong said.

“At the time you feel invincible and go about dancing and having a good time not caring about anything or the repercussions of your actions.”

Professor Robin Room from Turning Point Drug and Alcohol Centre in Melbourne says arak and other traditional liquors are not exclusive to Indonesia and are brewed in Africa and other Asian countries. “A lot of it is commercially distilled,” he said.

Room says the problem comes when the alcohol is distilled in backyards — that’s when things go wrong, and the alcohol contains methanol.

Appere, who is currently in Bali, says she felt euphoric and “high on life” while drinking arak. “At the time you feel invincible and go about dancing and having a good time not caring about anything or the repercussions of your actions,” she said. She has stayed away from arak this time around, sticking to drinks normally found in Australia.

“One of the girls I’m here with, my boyfriend and his mates all had arak one night last week and looked like death the next morning. The girl drinking the arak that night was acting exactly how I was acting — high on life and without a care in the world — but her head was in the toilet the next morning.”

Room says arak is no different to other distilled liquors like tequila or whisky, and does not have a stimulant effect like drugs such as cocaine or amphetamines. “A lot of what we experience is from expectations, so if you’re drinking something different, you are likely to expect a different outcome,” he said.

But Appere insists she felt something different that night, while she thought people were aware of the risks — to some degree. “I definitely do think there’s a correlation between arak and the amount of risk you’re willing to take,” she said.

There is no way to be certain if arak has been properly brewed. According to DFAT’s Smartraveller website, even bottled drinks may be incorrectly labelled and contents can be substituted with harmful ingredients.

So perhaps the best way to stay safe in Bali is to stay off the arak. And however cheap cocktails are, Bintang beer is about half the price!

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39 comments

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39 thoughts on “War on arak: how to get drunk in Bali without getting blind

  1. Deb Shepherd

    Thought provoking article as my partner and I were in Bali a couple years ago and drinking cocktails in the pool bar. He was drinking mainly milky based ones and really don’t know what was in them or even what they were now – but he was violantly ill that evening and night. He is normally a bouban drinker and never seems to be at all effected by alcohol. We did think it very strange at the time. I was keeping up with him but different cocktails to him and my tolerance to alcohol is way lower than his. Dont think we would risk it again!

  2. Bill Parker

    As a lab technician in London many years ago we were always told to be careful about the security of our bottled alcohol(s). They were the targets of street drinkers and their favorite was known as “The Milk”. I recall it was made by cutting isopropanol with water. Lethal eventually.

    We used copious quantities of ethanol in our work but this was always analytical grade. Down at the hardware store “methylated” spirits were readily obtainable. The content was actually ethanol but “poisoned” with methanol.

    So Arak? How do you know if it’s been properly distilled? You may not. If you wouldn’t drink metho, don’t drink Arak.

  3. Bob the builder

    Pedants corner – spirits are distilled, not brewed. The wash is fermented (brewed) matter from which the alcohol and some other flavours are distilled (extracted). It doesn’t really matter how badly you brew the original wash as long as good distilling practice is followed.

  4. Coaltopia

    Fascinatingly I just discovered that the chemical formula for Formic Acid (the cause of blindness or death from methanol) is HCOOH. Spell that backwards and you get “HOOCH”.

  5. Lord Barry Bonkton

    I spent 2 weeks in Bali in 1987 -88 with friends. Kuta beach road was dirt then.The hotel pool bar had not one uncracked spirit bottle. Drank bottled beer.Was at another bar on kuta road with some friends and we joined in a card game/scull drink if dealt a ACE. The drink was Arak and from memory got 3 or 4 ACES dealt to me , I remember a girl throwing up at the table – Big blank – turning up at the Hotel pool(minus drivers License ) and friends took me back to room to sleep it off. Still drank it at good restaurants and purchased bottles at the supermarket ( $2.00 ).Great with orange juice or coke , just don’t Binge drink with it.

  6. michael r james

    @Bob the builder at 2:03 pm

    Just a little clarification. You may be right that correct distillation should end up with methanol-free liquid but obviously the cleaner the starting material the better (and technically I am not sure how easy it is to separate ethanol & methanol by distillation–it probably needs several cycles which is probably not done.)

    But: “It doesn’t really matter how badly you brew the original wash” is still relevant with respect to home brews, such as beer etc. It is a reason I will not touch “unproven” homebrews (people bringing it to parties etc).
    …………………
    The mystery to me is how seemingly just one person was badly affected. Even with a lot of differences in rates of metabolism between people, that bottle that killed Liam Davies should have at the least made everyone who drank from the same bottle very sick. Though it should be noted that falling asleep is the worst thing to do. Vomiting is your body doing what it can to purge the toxin; and the rehydration afterwards is a help.
    I cannot recommend the other possible treatment–drinking a high proof (and pure) ethanol spirit like vodka–since it needs to be supervised and only en route to a hospital that knows how to handle such toxicity. (Ethanol competes more effectively for the liver enzymes that convert all alcohols, so it reduces the toxicity of methanol by reducing its metabolic byproducts which are the actual toxic elements; or certainly the rate of its metabolizing. Meanwhile the kidneys will be excreting the methanol–so lots of water will help too.)

    The report on 7.30 tonight suggested one person dies every 9 days in Bali from this, so I am assuming most of these are locals. This is the kind of thing that happened in colonial Australia and prohibition America.

  7. Bob the builder

    @ Michael
    How brews are brews, not spirits, so the final product is the ‘wash’ as distillers call it. In home brewing it’s really important to maintain quality control, though as far as poisoning, rather than bad taste, I don’t think it’s such a big issue.
    Methanol is a lower fraction of the distillate (it evaporates at a lower temperature than ethanol, which in turn evaporates at a lower temperature than water – which is how distilling isolates the alcohol from the water) – regardless of the wash, it can easily be isolated (chucked out) from the ethanol fraction with some basic good practice and a decent reflux still.

  8. Ari Sharp

    Worth noting that there is some pressure at the Indonesian end to lift standards:

    http://www.thejakartaglobe.com/home/local-alcoholic-concoctions-targeted-by-lawmakers/564831

  9. michael r james

    Bob, I don’t know why you just reiterated what I wrote.
    The methanol can only come from the initial fermentation (the brew, the wash) (though see below). Obviously inexperience and lack of understanding leads to poor fermentations (bacterial contamination, anaerobic conditions) then in the case of arak (more correctly arack; arak really refers to the pastis-type drink from the middle-east) a poor and lazy distillation. In Indonesia the chief ingredient is sugar but also red rice to give flavour.

    The cause of the current rise in these poisonings is apparently due to the Indonesian government slapping a 400% duty on imported spirit, and subsequent inability of importers to supply and of course the cost. Law of unintended consequences.

    A BBC news item from June 2009, reports there was a rash of 23 deaths within 2 weeks in Bali and Lombok, all presumed to be from one bad batch. The BBC piece slightly confuses things (to me) by concluding with: “Methanol, also known as wood alcohol, is used in rural Indonesia as a fuel for lanterns.”

    I cannot really imagine that any Indonesian handling these things could not be aware of the huge toxicity of methanol but there remains a whiff of a suggestion someone could be tainting arack with actual methanol (the 7.30 report also indirectly implied it). Seems unlikely but there is the additional complication that most arack factories are in Bali (and Lombok) because it is frowned on in Islamic Indonesia … (One reason for arak in the ME is that some muslims convince themselves that, because it is made from coconuts which are not specifically mentioned in the Koran, it escapes the prohibition against alcohol.)

  10. michael r james

    Moderation! Third attempt, I’ll break it up.

    Bob, I don’t know why you just rei terated what I wrote.
    The methanol can only come from the fermentation (the brew, the wash) (though see below). Obviously inexperience and lack of understanding leads to poor fermentations (bacterial contamination, anaerobic conditions) then in the case of arak (more correctly arack; arak really refers to the pastis-type drink from the middle-east) a poor and lazy distillation. In Indonesia the chief ingredient is sugar but also red rice to give flavour. Again, it must be getting thru the distillation — no matter how “easy” it is to separate the two alcohols (I notice that middle-east arak is distilled twice).

    The cause of the current rise in these poisonings is apparently due to the Indonesian government slapping a 400% duty on imported spirit, and subsequent inability of importers to supply and of course the cost. Law of unintended consequences.

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