Cocktail of the Month: Tuak

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The Lake Toba region of North Sumatra is a place of travelers’ lore. Lake Toba, the largest crater lake on earth, was formed by a climate-changing supervolcanic eruption almost 70,000 years ago. “Discovered” by intrepid hippie backpackers in the 1960s, it’s still a carefree, laid-back holiday spot set among pine forests, mountains and jungle.

Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim country by population. The Indonesian province of North Sumatra is squeezed between Aceh province in the north, which practices Sharia law, and traditional Muslim states in the south. One would think this would not be a place for drinking, let alone a cocktail writer.

But Toba is home to the friendly (and Christian) Batak people, who will welcome you with “Horas” — the local greeting — and big smiles. They always seem to have a guitar nearby and are eager to offer you a glass of “jungle juice” or tuak.

Today, the Batak may seem like the happiest people on earth. But in the past they were among the fiercest people in the Kingdom of Sumatra, practicing ritual cannibalism until the early 1800s, when they were converted to Christianity. However, they still follow some of their early animist beliefs.

Tuak is their drink of choice. An alcoholic beverage created from the sap of palm trees, it’s a drink of celebration and a drink of life, served at weddings, funerals, festivals, parties and after church on Sunday. A typical Batak shindig would include a few flagons (33-liter plastic jugs) of tuak, live music and a whole barbecued pig.

This potable could possibly be the easiest adult beverage to make. At the first light of day, sap is collected from the cut flower of the palm tree. The fresh liquid is cloyingly sweet and nonalcoholic. However, once extracted, it starts to ferment on its own due to the yeast in the air and its high sugar content. Two hours later, an aromatic drink of up to 4 percent alcohol is forged. Still on the sweet side, the bark of the raru tree is added to cut the sugariness and impart an earthy finish.

The finished product is a milky white liquid, with a hint of carbonation and a tangy smack. The flavor registers somewhere between sour craft beer and squirt soda.

It’s possible to ferment tuak longer for a higher alcohol content, but it takes on a sour and acidic taste. If left too long, it will taste like vinegar. So, unlike mass-consumed American beer, there is no need for a “born on” date. If your tuak is more than a day old, you’ll know it immediately.

In a region where swaths of jungle are being slashed and burned to make room for palm oil plantations, drinking tuak is an act of conservation. For many small farmers, the money generated by making and selling jungle juice is an incentive against deforestation.

By midmorning, you can see motorbikes overloaded with a dozen or so nine-gallon plastic jugs (flagons) of tuak zipping around the winding mountain roads to make their deliveries. It will be taken to bars, warungs (small restaurants) and shops.

Tuak is usually served in lapos, Sumatra’s version of open-air roadside dive bars, prevalent across the province. People sit at communal tables and a pitcher costs less than $2. If you wish to take some home, the proprietor will send you on your way with a plastic shopping bag or a recycled bottle filled with tuak.

As I made my way through the region with the help of a Batak friend living in Bali, I enjoyed many entertaining evenings, imbibing jungle juice in lapos to the sound of strumming guitars. In the small villages, hours away from Lake Toba by unpaved bumpy roads, my appearance would draw a crowd. Many had never seen a “bule” (white foreigner) with blond hair and blue eyes. I had my photo snapped more times than in the old days of “Brangelina.” Often the locals had family members working in Kuta Beach in Bali. The world being a small place, I usually ended up knowing someone in Bali with the same family name.

These lively evenings would continue until the last pitcher was finished and folks parted ways. The ritual would begin again at dawn, when tappers would head into the jungle to start the tuak-making process all over again.

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