5 drinks to try when in Sri Lanka
Super trendy back in Europe now – it has been for a while in the US. Until recently, I have viewed it with a degree of suspicion; funny texture, funny taste and usually only to be taken for medicinal reasons such as re-hydration. Apparently, in the tropics during WWII, medics would plug coconut water into wounded soldiers intravenously in the absence of plasma. It has wonderful rehydrating properties, and consumed by the roadside direct from a freshly decapitated nut really is a heavenly experience. Enough to have me drinking the Long Life stuff back home.
If you’re not going to drink its water straight from the nut, the next best thing to do with a coconut is ferment and then distill the nectar from its flower. Arak is to the coconut what whiskey is to barley. It’s the staple spirit of South East Asia and Sri Lanka have been doing it longer than anyone else; there are a few different grades, some aged in oak for many years, but on the most part you find it in cocktails by the poolside and on the beach. We downed most of ours with ginger beer – it’s hard to beat as a sundowner, and there are some great cocktails that use it as a base.
If you haven’t tried an Arak Caiparinha it’s well worth a go. But apart from its allure in a cocktail glass, it is worth considering it as a spirit in its own right; it offers a great stepping stone from vodka to aged spirits, and is an interesting alternative to brown spirits such as rum. Despite its sweet and floral aroma, it actually has quite a dry flavour, balanced as it is by the woody overtones imparted by the barrel ageing. There’s many to choose from, well worth a look if you can find one.
Mullers Brau Pilsner
The beer of Sri Lanka is Lion. Once you find out it is owned by Carlsberg, everything falls into place; it has the ubiquitous blandness of a multinational brew. Apparently, Lion once made a range of real ale style beers, no doubt harking back to colonial roots; needless to say, the bland Danish broom swept the notion of tasty beer out of the brewery, although to be fair, their stout is worth a look. Don’t get me wrong, Lion is not a “bad” beer per se, and when in Sri Lanka…. But quite quickly I went on a “please, anything but” Lion hunt.
On the way, we passed imported Endinger (I know, hardly local – but very welcome), through Anchor Pils (simply awful) and finally, Tom ended up bringing home a case of Mullers Brau Pilsner. This German style Pilsner, is brewed at the Cargill facility in Meegooda, home to the “Lion O’like” Three Crowns brand. Whilst admittedly it was not in great company, it did stand out as the go to beer of the holiday, and was a pretty good example of the style. Brewed badly, Pilsner can easily smell and taste stale – it’s a very delicate style and even a fraction of oxidation undoes all the hard work in the brewhouse; in this instance Cargill have done a good job – light, no bitterness and extremely refreshing.
Carlsberg Special Brew
I’m not joking. I really quite like Special Brew, which given my panning of most things Carlsberg above may come as a surprise. I love the story of Special Brew too; when Winston Churchill visited Copenhagen towards the end of WWII, the Carlsberg brewers, knowing Winston’s love of strong liquor, brewed an extra strong beer in his honour. A “Special Brew”. Quite how it then turned it in to the cheap and accessible strong beer so beloved of tramps and street drinkers in the UK is a mystery, and whoever did manage it should be cast in to the fiery furnace for eternity. I suspect it was unintentional and was probably mishandled by a succession of marketing managers as it is really only in the UK that it has such a tarnished image.
Whatever the reason, it’s a real shame. If you don’t believe me, try this one at home. After dinner, between dessert and cheese, serve chilled Special Brew to your guests in small wineglasses which you previously stored in the freezer. They will pick up hints of spice with malty sweet and caramel notes – even some green apple. It is strong, and the main reason for serving it very cold is to mask this fact as when warm, the alcohol can dominate the flavour; it is comparatively light for such a strong beer. In my experience, your guests will on the most part be very complimentary and curious, and they certainly won’t guess what it is you’ve given them. I suspect it’s not a patch on the original Brew, but definitely worth a visit from time to time, if only for the novelty value.
Rockland Dry Gin
Gin. I don’t know what it is, but when I’m anywhere close to the Equator, my desire for gin rises off the charts. It may also have something to do with the quinine in tonic water which is a flavour I love. I know it’s perhaps a little far-fetched to think this the shadow of a previous life spent in the tropics, but hey, we’re in Sri Lanka, they’re Buddhists here and believe in reincarnation so I’ll go with it. The local gin we found was Rockland Dry. On first looks it, it appeared to want to redefine the expression “gin clear” with its slightly yellow tinge. Almost impossible to see until stood beside Brokers, of Thames Distillers. We had an evening tasting them side by side, and I’m sad to say Rockland did not come out of it as a shining example of the spirit, but then I’m not altogether surprised, especially when compared to a gin made by Thanes, so the comparison is a little unfair. But whenever a gin was “called for”, I felt a pull towards Rockland.
As I said before, when in Sri Lanka……. probably best to drink Arak.