Most local people drink beer or wine or liquor made from palm sap, sugar cane or coconut milk. Toddy is a mildly alcoholic cider-like drink made with palm sap. Arrack is a strong drink made of malted rice drink or fermented toddy. There are a variety of grades and qualities. VSOA (Very Special Old Arrack) is arrack that has been double distilled and aged for seven years. Toddy arrack is honey-colored and said to be good mixed with ginger ale. Powerful arrak made made locally from coconuts is especially loved by fishermen. In the early 2000s, Sri Lanka produces about five millions gallons of toddy and 7½ million bottle of arrak a year.

Restaurants serve beer and other alcoholic drinks. Bars tend to be unpleasant, dirty places with a rowdy crowd. Most luxury hotels have bars where you can buy alcoholic drinks but many small hotels don’t have drinks although those that cater to foreign guest often do. Sri Lankan women generally don’t drink.

Annual alcohol consumption per capita: 3.7 liters of pure alcohol (compared to 17.4 liters in Belarus; 9.2 liters in the United States; and 2.4 liters in Japan). Rank: 130th out 191 countries. Of this 2.2 liters is recorded and 1.5 liters is unreported. Percentage of alcohol consumption in Sri Lanka: beer: 13 percent; wine: 0.1 percent; spirits: 84.9 percent; Other: 1.5 percent . [Source: World Health Organization data, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Alcoholism: about 1.62 deaths per 100,000 people (compared to 14.68 deaths per 100,000 people in Russia and 2.26 in the United States. Sri Lanka ranks 96th out of 183 countries in alcoholism deaths. [Source: World Health Organization, World Life Expectancy worldlifeexpectancy.com ]

Beer in Sri Lanka

Annual beer consumption: two liters (2009, compared to 188.6 liters in the Czech Republic; 72..7 liters in the United States; and 0.7 liters in Indonesia). [Source: The Island, Wikipedia Wikipedia ]

Locally-made pilsners, lagers and stout available. Brewing began in Sri Lanka in 1881 primarily to supply beer for colonial tea planters. Strong stouts are popular. In 2011, Sri Lanka produced around 51 million litters of beer a year. The beer market only represents 39 percent of the total reported alcohol market, the market share. Out of the beer consumed in Sri Lanka, 90 percent is made locally with the remainder imported primarily from Asian country such as India, Singapore and Vietnam. [Source: Wikipedia]

The largest of Sri Lanka's two brewers is the Lion Brewery, which is also the oldest brewery in the country. It produces over 80 percent of Sri Lanka's beers. In 1988 it constructed a new brewery at Biyagama to replace the century-old facility at Nuwara Eliya. The brewery is a subsidiary of Carson Cumberbatch & Co Ltd, and is 25 percent owned by the Carlsberg Group. The brewery's portfolio makes lagers, strong beers and stouts, notably Lion, Lion Strong and Lion Stout and Carlsberg. Since 2015, the brewery has produced a number of beers that were previously made by Millers Brewery Ltd, which existed from 1962 to 2015. Sri Lanka's second largest brewer is Heineken Lanka. It started as United Breweries Lanka in 1997. The brewery, located in Mawathagama, produces a range of medium and high-strength beers, including Bison Gold Blend, Tiger Lager, Tiger Black, Anchor Smooth and Anchor Strong.

Worth a try are Sanda Stout, named after a Hungarian strongman, and Lion stout, with an alcohol content of 7.5 percent. Royal Pilsner is said to be the best Sri Lankan pilsner or lager. A bottle generally coasts around a dollar at a local restaurant and $3 at upscale restaurants.


Toddies and hot toddies are rich and refreshing drinks made with sweet sap tapped straight from the stems and flowers of a mature toddy palms. The sap can be drunk fresh or it can be boiled down to form a kind of brown sugar called jaggery, a key ingredient in many Southeast and South Asian sweets. The "hot toddy" originally came from Burma.

Toddy liquid left to ferment for a several hours becomes toddy wine, which sells for about 25 cents a bottle and according to some tastes like Milk of Magnesia. It takes two bottles to get a decent buzz. These have to be consumed more or less right after they are purchased, after several hours toddy wine turns to sour toddy mush.

Palm wine — which in turn can be distilled into a potent spirit widely consumed in West Africa, Sri Lanka, India and Southeast Asia — comes from a palm tree as toddy. Toddy trees are prevented from bearing fruit by binding the open flowers and bending them over. The sap is extracted initially after three weeks and collected every month or so. A good toddy tree can yield 270 liters of sap a year.

Toddy Tappers

Toddy sap is collected once every three weeks or so by agile toddy tappers who climb the trees to collect the sap and sometimes move from tree to tree on lines like tight rope walkers, using a pair of ropes — one to walk on and the other to hold with their hands for balance. The work has traditionally been each morning at dawn A single tree may produce up to two liter per day.

To begin the tapping process a toddy tapper climbs a tree and beats the round fruit on the tree with a stick and later takes in stems and flowers of the tree to withdraw the sap. After that toddy tappers go from flower to flower every morning and evening with little pots.

Typically toddy tappers climb their trees with pot in the evening, tapping the tree overnight, and collect the pot the next day in a process not unlike collecting maple syrup, earning about $3.00 a day from collecting the tap from 16 trees. A good tapper can get a month's worth of sap from one flower. After the sap is collected it is boiled until it thickens and crystallizes into golf-ball-size lumps. Yeast is added to make inexpensive wine that is ready in a few hours to drink.


Arrack is a distilled alcoholic drink typically produced in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, made from the fermented sap of coconut flowers or sugarcane, and also made with grains such as red rice or fruit. It is sometimes spelled arak, or simply referred to as rak It is not to be confused with the anise-flavored distilled spirit called Arak popular in Turkey, Greece and the Middle East. There are two main kinds of Arrack that are very different from one another: Batavia Arrack, often clear in color but with flavor similar to dark rum, with a distinctive "hogo" imparted to it from fermented red rice; and 2) Ceylon Arrack, more refined and subtle spirit, with “hints of Cognac and rum character and a wealth of delicate floral notes.” Arrack is also made "in house" by locals into moonshine-style drinks. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Greek geographer Strabo (64 B.C. – A.D. 24) reports Indians made a beverage from rice which is known as Arak. Arrack predates all "New World" spirits produced. It is claimed that arrack has been distilled in India in 800 B.C. but while palm wine and fermented sugar-cane drinks were being made around this time period there is no evidence that formal distillation was taking place at that time. The reason the word arrack is used to describe a broad range of largely unrelated, distilled alcohols in Asia and the eastern Mediterranean is the widespread proliferation of distillation knowledge throughout the Middle East during the 14th century, with country naming its own alcohol by using various Latin alphabet forms of the “araq” — the Arabic word synonymous with distillation at the time. These included arak, araka, araki, ariki, arrack, arack, raki, raque, racque, rac and rak. 1864 English and Australian Cookery Book described Arrack as "a spirituous liquor from the East Indies. True arrack is said to be distilled from toddy, the fermented juice of the coconut flower. Up until 1992 the Sri Lankan government played a significant role in arrack production there.

Sri Lanka is the largest producer of toddy (coconut) arrack. The entire manufacturing process revolves around the fermentation and distillation of a single ingredient, the sap of unopened flowers from a coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). Due to its high concentrations of sugar and yeast content, the sap naturally and immediately ferments into a mildly alcoholic "toddy" (tuak, or "palm wine"). Within a few hours after the sap is collected, the toddy is poured into large wooden vats, called "wash backs", made from teak wood or Berrya cordifolia. The natural fermentation process continues in the washbacks until the alcohol content reaches 5-7 percent when it ready to be distilled.

Distillation takes place in two-steps using either pot stills, continuous stills, or a combination of both. The first step produces in "low wine", a liquid with an alcohol content between 20 and 40 percent. The second step, the final distillate, produces a drink with an alcohol content of 60 to 90 percent. Most types have an alcohol content of between 33 percent and 50 percent (66 to 100 proof). The entire distillation is done within 24 hours. Sometimes the extracted spirit is sold raw, as is often the case with moonshine varieties. Usually though, different blends are made, using repeatedly distilled or filtered distillates. Some kinds are placed into halmilla vats for maturing up to 15 years, depending on the desired flavor, color or fragrance. Premium blends of arrack are completely with water and toddy. Inexpensive blends are often mixed with neutral spirits. Most people describe the taste as being “between whiskey and rum" but distinctively different at the same time.

Coconut arrack is traditionally consumed by itself or with ginger beer, a popular soda in Sri Lanka. It also may be mixed in cocktails as a substitute for the required portions of either rum or whiskey. Arrack is often combined with popular mixers such as cola, soda water, and lime juice.

Arrack is the most popular local alcoholic beverage consumed in Sri Lanka and produced as a wide variety of brands that generally fall into three types:1) premium aged, 2) premium clear and 3) common. Premium aged is aged in halmilla vats for up to 15 years to mature and mellow the raw spirit before blending. Premium brands include Ceylon Arrack, VSOA, VX, Vat9, Old Reserve and Extra Special. Premium clear is generally not aged, but often distilled and/or filtered multiple times to soften its taste. Premium clear brands include Double Distilled and Blue Label. Common is blended with other alcohols produced from molasses or mixed with neutral spirits as filler.

Sri Lanka's largest manufacturers (2007): 1) DCSL (Distilleries Company of Sri Lanka), 37.25 million liters; 2) IDL (International Distilleries Ltd), 3.97 million liters; 3) Rockland Distilleries (Pvt) Ltd, 2.18 million liters; 4) Mendis, 0.86 million liters.

Alcoholic Drinks in Medieval Sri Lanka

Asiff Hussein, a Sri Lankan journalist and writer, wrote: We know that drinking liquor was not very popular with the ancient Sinhalese once they became Buddhists during the 3rd century B.C. Buddhism, it should be noted preached temperance, although alcoholic drinks (sura) such as toddy and the fermented sap of the sprouts of certain palm trees were known. [Source: Asiff Hussein, Culled from the Mahavansa and other literary and epigraphic sources]

The higher classes generally abstained from drinking. King Sena V (10th century) tempted by his lower class favourites is said to have indulged in drinking sura after which he is said to have been like a wild beast gone mad. The clergy were of course prohibited liquor, their thirst being satiated with sugar-water (sakkhara-pana) provided by generous laymen. Knox says that the Kandyans greatly abhorred drunkenness, “neither are there many that give themselves to it.

He also noted that the Kandyans had a saying: “Wine is as natural to white men, as milk to children.” However, this was not the case in the low-country after the 16th century. With the advent of the Portuguese, their robust red wine (vinho) which the Sinhalese initially mistook for blood (as stated in a later Sinhalese chronicle, the Rajavaliya) caught on fast, and with it other alcoholic beverages such as Arrack' produced from the distilled toddy of the kitul, coconut or palmyra palm.

The Dutch who succeeded the Portuguese in the low-country, also encouraged the consumption of liquor, from which they derived a considerable revenue, the renting of taverns being a state monopoly. With the advent of British rule in the Kandyan highlands during the early 19th century, arrack taverns were opened up in every district and were much patronized by the peasantry and others. The influence of the European powers on the people's culinary habits cannot be underestimated.

Non-Alcoholic Drinks

Drinks include thambili (liquid made from the bright orange King coconut drunk plain or mixed with sugar, lime and a little salt), kurumba (juice form green coconuts, less sweet than thambili), watermelon juice mixed with crushed ice, freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice, fresh-squeezed orange drink, nimbu pani (fresh lime drink) and sweet tamarind drink. Be careful with some of these drinks. They may be made with unhygienic water. Sri Lanka sells its own brands of soft drinks as well as drinks like Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

Common drinks include boiled ranawara, beli mal, pol pala, iramusu (sarasaparilla) water with jaggery. Palmyra fruit, kirala fruit and wood apple juice mixed with coconut milk and jaggery are other favourite drinks, also taken as desserts. Fruit juice is made from melons, pomegranate passion fruit, oranges, pineapple and papayas. Kurumba can be crushed pink rice water.

"Thambili" is a popular wayside drink and is often drunk at hot times of the day. No need to pour the drink into a glass. You can sip it straight from the fruit through a straw. It is said to be rich in energizing salts and is regarded as a nutritious drink. Pomegranates are greatly prized in the east because of its medicinal properties. Delicious drinks are also made from "sour-sap" which has a creamy sweet and sour taste and woodapple, a brown fruit which is delicious when prepared with coconut milk and jaggery.

Popular soft drink brands include Mirinda, Mountain Dew, My Cola, My Orange, My Lemon, My Cream Soda, Ole Arshik, Ole Cream Soda, Ole Ginger Beer, Ole Zingo, Shaa Cola, Shaa Mandarin, Shaa Orange, Shaa Lemon, Sprite,

Elephant House Drinks

Elephant House, formally part of Ceylon Cold Stores (CCS), is a Sri Lankan company which produces carbonated drinks, ice cream and processed meat products and supplies cold storage. Despite competition from global competitors such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Elephant Soft Drinks remains the market leader in Sri Lanka. [Source: Wikipedia]

Ceylon Cold Stores was established in 1866 as the Colombo Ice Company, which in 1863 imported the country's first ice-making machine — powered by two steam engines, with eight and nine horse power, Initially with 22 employees and an investment of 1,900 pound, the company started producing ice on a commercial scale. German engineer Arthur Kurt Von Possner (1833–1900) was the first manager of the company. He introduced carbonated drinks and the distinctive "Elephant" trademark on the bottles, which later became "Elephant House" and since that time has been the name of the brand. The company initially produced two types of carbonated drinks: soda and lemonade as well as aerated water. The soda and lemonade won awards international fairs in Melbourne and Calcutta.

In 1941, New Colombo Ice Company changed its name to Ceylon Cold Stores Limited. In 1964 Mallory Wijesinghe became its first Sri Lanka chairman. In January 1970 the company was listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange. Ceylon Cold Stores came under the umbrella of John Keells Holdings Limited with the acquisition of the Whittalls Group in 1991 (John Keells Holdings has a 54 percent majority shareholding in the company). In 1998 the company expanded enhanced its production capacity constructing a modern bottling plant at the Kaduwela factory. In 2007 John Keells Holdings reinvested close to one billion rupees in the installation of a state of the art factory line.

Elephant House Cream Soda is the company’s most popular drink. Among the other drinks are Elephant House Lemonade, Elephant House Necto, Elephant House Orange Barley, Elephant House Orange Crush, Elephant House Soda, Elephant House Tonic, Elephant House Bitter Lemon, Elephant House Apple Soda, Elephant House Ginger Beer (EGB), Elephant House Dry Ginger Ale, Elephant House KIK Cola, Elephant House Twistee Apple, Elephant House Twistee Peach,

Tea and Coffee in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankans are big tea drinkers and they favor tea with heated cow or buffalo milk and lots of sugar. Tea is consumed all times of the day and is fixture of business meetings. It sometimes seems like Sri Lankan men spend half their day drinking tea. Tea breaks are taken throughout the day. Vendors often invite customers in share for a cup of tea. Coffee is served in some places. It tend to be instant coffee.

Tea in Sri Lanka is associated most the country’s southern and central highland. Teas grown at elevations as high as 2,800 meters (6,000 feet) thrive in crisp, cool air and often misty hills. The flavor of tea differs according to the altitude and area or region where it is grown. Each tea has its own unique character and bouquet. The high-grown teas are considered the best, but even the low-grown green teas have their special appeal. Iced tea is a great thirst quencher. Teas flavoured with fruits, spices and ginger are available.

Annual tea consumption per capita: .4 kilograms (2014, compared to 3.2 kilograms in Turkey; .23 kilograms in the United States and .57 kilograms in China) [Source: World Tea News]

Coffee became very popular with Colombo hipsters in the early 2000s. A number of coffee shops opened up in Colombo, offering lattees, espressos and cappuccinos. Barista Coffee was one of the most popular coffee shops at time.

Annual coffee consumption per capita: .29 kilograms (2016. compared to 12 kilograms in Finland, 4.2 kilograms in the United States and ).5 kilograms in Thailand). [Source: helgilibrary.com ]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Sri Lanka Tourism (srilanka.travel), Government of Sri Lanka (www.gov.lk), The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Wikipedia and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated February 2022

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