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How Mesh & Bone Brought the Rare Sri Lankan Spirit Arakku to Chicago

You have to climb a coconut tree to get it.

A toddy tapper in Sri Lanka   Photo: Courtesy of Mesh & Bone

It was during a coworker’s wedding in Colombo, Sri Lanka, when Scott Crist first heard of arakku, a local spirit best likened to a whiskey-rum crossover that is made of the fermented sap of coconut flowers. (It’s also known as coconut arrack, not to be confused with the more common Batavia arrack, the Indonesian rice spirit). “Everyone was drinking this drink on the rocks, sort of like you would a Scotch, but I had no idea what it was,” says Crist, who was on the lookout for a product addition for Mesh & Bone, the rare spirits line he launched this August in Chicago. “When they told me about it, that it was this ancient spirit and had never before made its way to the States, I had to learn more.”

To really understand arakku, Crist set out to spend time with the island’s toddy tappers, local farmers who cut and tap the coconut flowers needed for the aged spirit’s creation. “They didn’t speak any English and had never encountered a foreigner like me who just wanted to learn about the drink,” he says. “The very first communication I received from them was a hand signal resembling a snake, which was their way of telling me, ‘Watch it, there are tons of cobras around.’”

Serpents weren’t the only obstacles Crist encountered during his week-long stay with the farmers: there were crows, too, and huge mosquitoes. “I got bit by everything,” he says.

Due to Sri Lanka’s sweltering mid-day temperatures, the toddy tapping process would start at 4 a.m. “These guys scale long, skinny trees with nothing but a small piece of rope, a machete, and a bucket, which they use to gather the sap before lowering it down for other workers to collect,” says Crist. That supernatural balance is further challenged when they move from tree to tree, which they do via tightrope walking on a webbed network of cords. “I helped carry the buckets, but I didn’t climb any trees because they wouldn’t let me,” says Crist. “I would have definitely fallen.”

It’s not the only instance the former marketing and brand strategy executive found himself halfway across the world exploring an obscure spirit. For Mesh & Bone’s debut Crist traveled the globe to seek out some of the most under-the-radar, under-appreciated spirits to shine a spotlight on them—and, just as importantly, the people who are making them. Crist’s curiosity and well-inked passport resulted in the creation of Sotol from Chihuahua, Mexico, Shochu Mugi from the Japanese island of Kyushu, and cider from Brittany, France. Want to try it out? You can find bottles here.

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