Aperitifs are both ritualistic and cultural. Served before a meal to stimulate the appetite, aperitif liqueurs are herbal and light, meant to be slowly sipped, not guzzled. Aperitif hour is a time for unwinding from the day, shutting down from work mode and switching to leisure. In France, it takes the form of pastis. Italy has vermouth and Aperol. And Greece has mastiha liqueur.
Until recently, Greece’s mastiha liqueur hasn’t been as popular as other aperitifs. Thanks to new brands’ premiumization of the category and further education on its benefits, however, mastiha is starting to gain a cult following.
So what, exactly, is mastiha? It’s a resin that’s collected from the mastic (skinos) tree, an evergreen shrub native to the Greek island of Chios. The hardened sap is an ancient superfood, and for 3,000 years, it has been used for its healing properties and as a health and beauty supplement. The southern part of Chios is the only place in the world where the tree grows and in 1997, the European Union designated the 24 villages producing mastiha as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), which is similar to titles given to locales like Champagne, Cognac and Tequila.
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To create the liqueur, the resin is collected, then distilled and combined with a neutral grain spirit. Effie Panagopoulos, founder of Kleos Mastiha Spirit, told Observer that their premium process includes double distillation in copper pots with two forms of PDO mastiha: the raw resin and mastiha essential oil, as well as a touch of sugar and local water from the Greek island of Lesvos. “Mastiha needs heat to extract the maximum flavor and aroma compounds from the raw ingredient,” Panagopoulos explained. Kleos is layered and nuanced with a flavor profile that is botanical and lightly herbaceous.
Until recently, mastiha was actually considered a peasant spirit; a cedar-forward, sugary sip, often consumed after meals in Greece. This reputation is partly due to how it was made and how it wasn’t highly consumed outside of Greece. Now, with society’s growing interest in niche global spirits, along with quality liqueur brands like Kleos and Axia, who’ve brought the mastiha spirit into the spotlight, it’s becoming more common on menus in high-end Greek beach clubs as well as restaurants and global cocktail bars, everywhere from New York to Los Angeles.
Due to its complex, distinct flavors, and position as an aperitif and digestif, mastiha liqueur is typically served neat before or after meals. Not only does this permit a consumer to enjoy the nuances of the flavors, but the liqueur has a digestive benefit, too. “It removes all the gas from the stomach, [which] allows you to eat more,” Panagopoulos said.
This isn’t the only reported health benefit of mastiha, as it is filled with antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory properties. Though these benefits haven’t been proven in the spirit form of mastiha, the liqueur is created from this superfood, which is what lends itself to an effective aperitif when sipped neat. It has long been used as a natural chewing gum (in its raw mastic form, not as a liqueur), and there have been studies that focus on its use as a natural remedy in aiding the lessening of symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn’s disease and in general is anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory and packed with antioxidants.
While sipping the spirit neat is the traditional way to drink it, some bartenders have been experimenting with mastiha liqueur in cocktails. “It’s such an interesting and unique flavor; bartenders around the world have been picking up this spirit and using it as a modifier, or, in some cases, a base for cocktails,” Lou Charbonneau, beverage director for Boston’s Xenia Greek Hospitality, told Observer. Charbonneau says he’s personally experimented with mastiha by using it in riffs on the classic Bloody Mary, as well as martinis, daiquiris and mojitos. Charbonneau points to Kleos, Roots Vintage Strength and Skinos as his favorite mastiha brands.
Prominent Greek chefs are also using mastiha to lighten up dishes; Lefteris Lazarou has used it to flavor fish soup at the Michelin-starred Varoulko, Christoforos Peskias of Balthazar in Athens has used it in meat dishes and Sweet Alchemy’s Stelios Parliaros has used it in chocolates and sweets.
It’s important to note, however, that the mastiha spirit is not ouzo. Touted as Greece’s national drink, ouzo is a dry, anise-flavored aperitif with a bitter fennel flavor that is utterly different from mastiha’s sweet herbal notes. Indeed, the truly unique nature of mastiha is what sets it apart. In a world that’s constantly seeking out the next best thing in food and drink, mastiha still stands out, with the potential to become just that.
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