Photo by Chris Goldberg
Heading to the Gilis and wondering about Bali alcohol? Drinking in the Gili islands poses a lot of questions – do you want a sunset Bintang or mojito, how many margaritas is too many (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing) and should you go for local or ‘import’ alcohol? We’ve done some extensive research to save you the hangovers, and can now officially report back on what you should be drinking…
Local Bali alcohol, or alcohol in the Gili islands, comes in several forms – one being locally-produced alcohol for commercial sale. Indonesian beer brands include Bintang, Stark and Bali Hai, as well as Guinness which is brewed under license. Local wine includes Hatten Wine, Discovery Cape and Plaga Wine. There arealso local spirits available. These forms of alcohol will be regulated, legal and safe to drink.
Then there is very local alcohol which isn’t really made to be sold in bars or restaurants. This is often palm or rice wine, and is made by locals for locals. You can buy it in small shops, and it normally comes in recycled plastic water bottles.Palm wine, or ‘tuak’ as it’s called in Sasak (Lombok’s local dialect), has a pinkish hue to it, while rice wine is a hazy yellowy color. ‘Arak’ refers to a Balinese spirit (similar to vodka) that is made in Bali and isn’t usually as heavily regulated as imported spirits.
Imported spirits refer to the branded alcohol that you’ll recognize from back home – Smirnoff, Gordon’s, Bacardi, etc. These are brought to the islands and will cost the venue money in import taxes. These will all be made officially by the brand, so will be held to European/ Australian standards of taste, quality and safety. Gili Trawangan alcohol will offer you the choice of these options, so if you’re heading to party island, pay attention!
If you’re fussy about how your drinks taste, you’re probably not going to enjoy local alcohol all that much. While it tends to be fine in a mixer, anything ‘on the rocks’ is going to taste a bit different to what you’re used to back home. There are heaps of local options for rum, gin and vodka, but the selection isn’t quite as tasty as the shelf with the Captain Morgan’s and Bombay Sapphire on it…
As mentioned, local alcohol also comes in the form of rice wine and palm wine – these are made from plants and tend to be quite strong. Palm wine is often mixed with Bintang or lime for flavor. These wines are normally found in Gili Air and Lombok, not Bali mainland. The taste is very distinctive, and won’t taste much like the sake or rice wine you might be used to. There is normally a sharp, tangy taste that has a slightly fermented flavor to it.
It goes without saying, but local alcohol is much cheaper than the imported stuff. Not surprising, really! Most places will generally sell both local spirits and imported spirits, but the price for an imported one will obviously be higher than the local option.
This price difference will be the same pretty much anywhere you go, with a local rum and coke costing around 50,000 IDR, and the imported equivalent costing anywhere from 70,000 IDR to 80,000 IDR. It costs a lot to import branded alcohol here, which is why the prices are so high. This is also why so many people make local alcohol, which is often unregulated.
If you’ve googled ‘Bali alcohol poisoning’, you may have found yourself feeling slightly overwhelmed. There are many stories reporting illnesses and fatalities stemming from Bali alcohol alongside Gili Trawangan alcohol. Here are some things to bear in mind about local alcohol, imported alcohol and how to stay safe while you’re traveling…
Ethanol is the alcoholic part of spirits, and is the chemical involved that determines the percentage of the alcohol. Methanol, however, is incredibly dangerous and is not safe for consumption. It forms from ethanol if the brewing or fermenting process isn’t monitored properly. The risk that often comes with local alcohol is that it has not been regulated well enough to prevent the production of methanol.
There are various rumours that branded spirit bottles are refilled with homemade, methanol-containing spirits, albeit accidentally-included methanol. It can be very hard to tell the difference, and it’s unlikely that anyone will admit to filling old, import-branded bottles with local alcohol if asked.
You’re likely to be invited to sit with some locals and drink from a little plastic water bottle filled with a pale pink or orangey liquid – the palm or rice wine mentioned earlier. This will be homemade and not technically legal, and won’t be regulated. The choice is yours – local, homemade alcohol does taste pretty good but is potentially harmful to your body due to the lack of regulation and its potentially high alcohol content.
I know, I know – unlikely that you’ll bear all of this in mind when you’re out with your new hostel friends, or enjoying a romantic evening of beach cocktails. At the end of the day, do what feels right for you and be safe where possible. Gili Trawangan alcohol-fuelled nights tend to get pretty messy, but you can avoid serious issues by being aware of the risks involved.
As you can probably guess, the hangover that comes with local Bali alcohol is far worse than import-hangovers. Despite being a young, healthy(ish) traveler, I can confirm that my recovery period has gone from a morning of feeling rough to about two days of needing to be in a dark, quiet room.
Alcohol poisoning is a risk wherever you drink while traveling, especially if you’re drinking anything local. Methanol traces in any drink may lead to alcohol poisoning. The symptoms of this are similar to those of a typical hangover – vomiting, nausea and confusion. If you’re also having difficulty breathing, remaining conscious or you experience seizures, seek immediate medical help. There are 24 hr clinics on the Gili islands that will know how to help you – head to Blue Medical or get the boat over to Bali if you’re worried.
At this point, you’re probably wondering if you can drink anything on these islands! Imported alcohol in the bigger or more expensive resorts, bars and restaurants is likely to be the real deal. These businesses are more likely to be able to afford the import tax, so you should be safe to go for the ‘import’ options on the menu. It is very unlikely that these places will refill old bottles with local alcohol. Gili Trawangan alcohol, and choices across the Gili islands, will be a mix of local and imported drinks.
Having done more research for this article, I’m now feeling grateful to have avoided any major issues when drinking local arak Bali alcohol. When you first arrive in the Gilis, it is easy to get caught up in ‘holiday-mode’ so shots at the bar and 2 for 1 cocktails appear so suddenly that you don’t really have time to process. Of course, the majority of people who come to these islands drink a lot and are unharmed, but there is always a risk – it’s up to you what you choose to drink.
At the risk of sounding incredibly boring, it may be best to stick to imported alcohol and bottled beer. When it comes to beer, make sure there is a cap on the bottle – most places will open the beer at the table for you.
On a side note, Bintang and other beer brands here tend to reuse bottles, which is amazing in terms of recycling! Not so amazing is the fact that cleaning chemicals can sometimes leave a bad-tasting residue around the rim of the bottle. Give the inside and outside around the lip of the bottle a quick wipe with a napkin before you swig
There have been reports of Bali alcohol poisoning incidents, across Lombok and the Gilis over the past few years, so please stay as safe as you can. If you’re traveling alone, make sure someone you’re out with knows where you’re staying, and help each other keep an eye on your drinks. The Gili islands tend to be a very safe place to visit, but it doesn’t hurt to be a little cautious sometimes.
Whatever you choose to do, do your best to stay safe on the Gili islands. You’re here to have fun, but you want to make sure you leave in one piece, without a huge medical bill, and with at least 50% of your dignity intact!