Mastiha, pronounced mas-ti-ka, is a Greek liqueur spiced with mastic resin from the island of Chios. You have probably never heard of Mastiha; few have unless you are of Greek ethnicity.
Historically, it has been a sweet drink, usually served cold after a meal. However, a new dry version, produced for Miami-based Axia Spirit, is making waves among mixologists and heralds the emergence of an entirely new category of Mastiha.
The mastic tree, Pistacia lentiscus, produces mastic resin. The tree grows wild in the Mediterranean region. In many places it is considered a weed. The term mastic is derived from the Greek word mastichonchew.
However, on the southern part of the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean Sea, the local variety of mastic tree (Pistacia lentiscus var. chios) produces an exceptionally flavorful resin. Nicknamed “Tears of Chios”, it imparts distinctive notes of spice, citrus and pine resin when dissolved in an alcoholic spirit.
Chios Mastiha Liqueur is a protected designation of origin (PDO) in the European Union. It is reserved for a spirit produced in Greece using only mastic resin from the island of Chios.
The island, the fifth largest Greek island in the Aegean Sea, is located just off the coast of Turkey and is separated from the Anatolian mainland by the Chios Channel.
There are about 1.5 million mastic trees on Chios, grown by about 5,000 growers. The average farmer has between 500 and 10,000 trees. The resin is harvested from November to February.
A handheld, rake-like instrument is used to score the bark. The resin flows from the cuts and hardens into small crystal-like “mastiha tears”. The tears eventually fall to the floor where they are collected. The area under the trees is covered with a thin layer of white limestone powder to keep the crystals clean.
The tears are washed three times and either packed as is, ground into powder or turned into mastic oil. The island produces about 200 tons of mastic resin per year. The mastic tears sell for about $100/kilo wholesale.
The use of mastic resin dates back to ancient times. Historically, it was used in mummification rituals, balms, incense, and even snakebite antivenom.
Hippocrates recommended mastic resin to prevent digestive problems, colds and as a breath freshener. Mastic liqueurs were widely consumed as a tonic in Roman times. Alcoholic drinks flavored with mastic resin have been common in Greece since the 18th century.
Mastic is widely used as a spice in Greek cuisine, from bread to marinades. It is also popular as an antioxidant supplement.
Mastiha is sometimes confused with Ouzo, the classical Greek spirit. Although both drinks are typically Greek, they are different.
Ouzo is an alcoholic drink mainly flavored with anise and smaller amounts of fruits and herbs. Each producer has a unique recipe. Some producers also use a small amount of mastic, but this is not a major ingredient in Ouzo.
Mastic liqueurs are produced by dissolving mastic crystals, powder or oil with alcohol and then distilling the mixture twice. Water and sugar are added to lower the alcohol content and sweeten the spirit.
According to Axia:
Mastiha crystals are carefully macerated and then re-distilled at 80°C in our alembic stills. Maceration takes a while, but it allows us to work gently with the crystals and extract a range of flavor components from them, lifting and refining various characteristics of the resin. From sultry rose to bright cypress and bold anise, we’re excited about the broad spectrum we’ve been able to extract from the crystals.
We use traditional alembic copper stills, the size and shape of which have been carefully calibrated to deliver a unique sensory experience in the final distillate – layered complexity, velvety textures and delicate balance.
The entire distillation process takes ten hours. The still strong drink is left to rest on site in stainless steel containers for several weeks to combine the flavors and develop a soft character. Purified local water is gradually added and gently mixed to achieve our desired ABV.
Axia Spirit was founded by Adrian Clarke, a member of the Bacardi clan, a long-time investor and entrepreneur in a beverage company, and Nikos Kalogiannis, a distiller and well-known Ouzo producer.
Axia produces its Mastiha spirit at the Plomari distillery of Kalogiannis on the island of Mytilene. Unlike traditional Mastiha liqueurs, however, Axia Mastiha contains only about 0.5% sugar by weight. Traditional Mastiha can contain as much as 7% sugar.
Tony Chavala, CEO of Axia Spirit, described the new extra-dry drink as “a new category of spirits for consumers seeking flavor, depth, complexity and excitement in a drink.” He calls it a “unique flavor for a new generation of taste hunters and spirit lovers.”
Axia, Extra Dry Mastiha, 40% ABV, 750 ml
The mind is crystal clear. On the nose it is semi-dry with green vegetative notes of cut grass and notes of TNZT, anise and menthol, along with some floral potpourri, especially aromas of rose petals and dried bergamot. There is a bit of wet stone minerality accompanied by some spicy notes and a bit of pepper.
There are pronounced citrus notes of orange and mandarin on the palate and a hint of lemon zest. The spirit has just a hint of candied sweetness, a bit marshmallow-like, which, along with the citrus notes, gives it a light marmalade-like flavour. There is a hint of cloves, a chilli-like pepperiness, subtle resinous notes of pine pitch and a lingering spicy note.
The finish is long, with a lingering pine and spice note and a hint of bitterness at the end.
Axia Mastiha works equally well straight up or on the rocks and as a base of a cocktail. Try it with tonic water and a splash of orange bitters or mixed with an herbal liqueur or herb-infused simple syrup. It also makes a great mojito!