Drink . . . if you Dare. (9K GIF)

Makin' Moonshine

As promised, this month I've prepared an article on how to make your own moonshine from the juice of the lontar palm. Three special terms are used in the article: nirah, which is the raw "juice" itself; laru, wine-like fermented nirah; and sopi, which is the stuff you'll want to Keep Away From Flame.

If you missed it, check out last month's article on tapping the lontar, complete with (first ever?) close-ups of the process shot from high up in the palms themselves.

Future articles will feature looks at other uses for nirah and the lontar palm. Also, a new series will bring you up close with the fishing community. And if you are interested in hand-woven fabrics, check out the Fabric Center, part of this website.

Invaluable 3-D diagram of the works.  (17K GIF)

Drum full o'foaming laru. (17K GIF)First Step: Fermentation

The raw nirah, if left alone, in a few hours turns to vinegar. At first it begins to take on a slightly acidic taste with something of a fizz and bite to it, rather like Sprite; but not long thereafter it's undrinkable. Although the vinegar is useful for cooking, for the men who carry their haik (leaf-buckets) through the streets to sell nirah by the cupful, the phenomenon poses a problem: how can the nirah be kept drinkable until it's all sold?

It turns out that the solution has a fortunate side effect. By placing in the nirah wood and bark from the laru tree, the nirah ferments into a mellow, reddish wine. Thus, not only does the drink stay fresh, it acquires a new selling point.

The making of down-home 'shine begins with the same process. A steel drum is filled with nirah and laru wood and bark, and then left overnight to froth away, forming the alcoholic basis for the distillate. As the natural yeast furiously does its work, the sound resembles that of a pot of boiling water.

Second Step: Distillation

Main view of the works. (17K JPEG)

The distillation process is conceptually simple, but it's still neat to see how it's done.

Once the nirah has fermented (and become laru), it is ready to face the heat of day. The drum is placed on rocks set by the still, and is instantly transformed into a cauldron. A wooden lid is laid across the top, and sealed at the edges with the sticky fibres of a ripe lontar fruit, which resembles a small coconut. To improve the seal, sometimes the fibres are slathered with liquid palm sugar made from boiled down nirah.

Best view of the fittings. (9K JPEG)

A bamboo stack emerges from the top, which then fits to half-inch copper pipe. The pipe in turn runs through a cooling jacket, fashioned from a hollowed out lontar trunk, to emerge at the other end over a plastic gasoline jug (fig. 4). All of the joints are sealed in the same way as the lid.

The laru thus boils away, the alcohol evaporating first, rising to the top, condensing in the water-cooled copper pipe, and finally dripping into the plastic jug. No further process is required.

Though simple, the process is not easy. The drums are heavy and hard to manage. Wood must continually be gathered and chopped. The fire must be tended, and the character of the distillate judged: if it is too watery, then most of the alcohol has boiled off and distillation must stop.

In addition the cooling jacket quickly heats up, and must be continually refilled with water to maintain efficient condensation. To make this easier, one boy cleverly rigged a bamboo chute up so that he can pour water in directly from the well, rather than carry it around by the bucketfull.

Finally, the sopi must be sold. This is no doubt the trickiest part of all. Oftentimes clients are belligerent and demanding, and if refused or insulted, a cycle of enmity and revenge could ensue. The distributor must therefore be both diplomatic in character and somewhat fear inspiring!

Photograph of Collection Point. (17K JPEG)

It's strong stuff, something like gin. The flavour can vary; sometimes ginseng, burnt corn cobs, or other ingredients are added to the sopi. Creative experimentation is encouraged.

Anyway, come on over to Roté, or to our "little Roté" here in Kupang, and try some sopi. Anybody interested in importing the stuff? (It wouldn't have to be sold in ketchup bottles, of course.)

Next Month . . .

. . . was going to feature a look at other uses for nirah and the lontar palm, plus a new series on fishing, but never did...anyone disappointed? Hope you have enjoyed your visit to Culture Corner and will come again for more of Eastern Indonesia!

-- James

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this page by j.a. | last updated 9/5/96