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Basics: The Allure of Mastiha, Greece's Prized Resin Spirit

Aug 22, 2023


Anise-flavored spirits can be polarizing—you either love or hate offerings like sambuca, pastis and absinthe. Greeks, however, are firmly in the love category. While ouzo is typically the first drink that comes to mind, they’re also partial to mastiha, a semi-sweet, piquant and uniquely invigorating liqueur worth discovering. Though anise-free, mastiha is sometimes described as having a flavor that combines fennel, anise and mint.

Chios Mastiha spirit, or simply mastiha, is a Greek liqueur flavored with the resin of the mastic tree. The species grows throughout the Mediterranean and is cultivated as an ornamental plant globally. However, the only trees in the world that produce this precious and highly aromatic resin, sometimes referred to as “liquid gold,” exist in the southern part of one Greek island: Chios.

This UNESCO-protected cluster of twenty-four villages, known as the Mastichochoria, plays host to groves of mastic trees that are carefully tended year-round. Of the area’s one-time population of 1.5 million trees, approximately 250,000 were burned in a series of wildfires that ravaged the island in 2012, rendering the sap even more precious.

Why Chios and nowhere else? It’s a mystery, admits Konstantinos Chantzis, former head bartender at Nammos, Mikonos, and bar manager of NYC’s Kyma Group. “Is it the wind, the ground, the people?” he asks with a shrug and a huge smile. “Whatever it is, it’s insane!” He explains that despite efforts to transplant the trees elsewhere, including Samos—an island just south of Chios in the Aegean Sea—the trees will not produce resin.

The name “Chios Mastiha” also pertains to the resin itself, aka mastic gum. It is extracted according to a centuries-old practice involving a sharp tool called a kentitiri, which is used to slice into bark. The resin forms tear-like droplets, which gave rise to the tree’s nickname, “the crying tree.” As it dries, mastiha crystallizes and takes on a chewy consistency. It’s used not only for spirits, but also in Greek cuisine and numerous wellness products, including medicinal powders, capsules and essential oil.

History cites mastiha resin as a popular flavoring in cooking as well as a key ingredient in the ancient Roman wine Conditum Paradoxum. It’s also been used for incense, as an antidote for snake venom, for embalming and mummification and even as a filling for cavities. Hippocrates himself recommended mastiha to cure digestive ailments and congestion, while Roman physician Galen prescribed it for bronchitis.

A veritable superfood, mastiha holds European PDO status (Protected Designation of Origin). It’s approved by both the Committee on Herbal Medicines and the European Medicines Agency for use in treating dyspepsia and skin inflammation. Mastiha is currently being studied as a remedy for nerve damage with promising results.

Traditionally, mastiha is produced through distillation of the gum in copper stills. It is then blended with sugar and water to achieve a balance of sweetness and abv. Alternatively, a neutral spirit is flavored with PDO Chios Mastiha essential oil and sweetened to taste.

The aroma and flavor profile of mastiha varies based on the production process. However, common aromatic notes include a fresh rush of woody pine and botanicals like eucalyptus, bay leaf and mint. According to Aris Sklavenitis, an oenologist, sommelier and the owner of Athen’s Oinoscent Wine Bar, you might also pick up notes of lavender and tea leaves. On the palate, traditional mastiha is piquant, but with a lingering sweet finish reminiscent of the nose. There are also dry versions available with little to no sugar added in the final blending process.

Mastiha is typically served chilled after a meal, neat or on the rocks. Recently, mixologists have been experimenting with mastiha as a dynamic and versatile cocktail ingredient. Chantzis always has a mastiha cocktail on his menu. “It’s so easy for bartenders to play with; the classic sweeter version of mastiha is great in a cosmopolitan or mojito. You can use the drier version—which is also higher in alcohol—as a base spirit like vodka.”

Get your hands on one of these bottles, recommended by industry experts, and you’re in for a rare and refreshing treat. Ya mas!

According to George Vourliotis, who runs the Athens branch of Barphilosophy bartending academy, Kleos is one of the best mastihas for cocktails. Double distilled in small batches with both mastiha-based essential oil and the actual mastic gum, it is super aromatic with layers of flavor but lower in sugar, which allows for more flexibility and control over the sweetness of the cocktail.

Many experts we spoke to recommended Skinos Mastiha Spirit, which is a top-selling brand for good reason. It’s classic in style, lightly sweet but balanced and full-flavored. It’s a great introduction to mastiha’s distinctive aromas and has a pleasant green and earthy palate. At 60 proof, it’s suited for both sipping and mixing.

Roots Mastic is another favorite of Sklavenitis. The brothers behind the brand were inspired by their own connections to one of Greece’s most historic distilleries to create a modern, approachable mastiha with clean and subtle aromas and a smooth palate reminiscent of coconut and lavender.

Produced by a small family-run distillery, this bottle is classically styled, sweet and creamy on the palate with notable floral notes of lavender and chamomile.

Both Konstantinos Chantzis and Giannis Pissas, bartender at buzzy Athenian rooftop gastro bar Manouka, sing the praises of Axia. Ultra-dry and 80 proof, it’s almost gin-like, with notes of cypress and bergamot and a faint rose aroma.

As close to the source as you can get, Stoupakis Distillary has called Chios home since 1900, when the island was still under Turkish rule. Locally known as the masters of mastiha, it offers intense notes of anise, pine and eucalyptus.

A modern and dynamic distillery, EVA produces Mastic Tears with state-of-the-art copper stills. It’s medium sweet as tradition dictates, with pure mastiha aromas and an exceptionally long finish.

Four generations have kept this family recipe secret. Located on the island of Chios, Psychis is a classic and clean liqueur, sweet as per tradition and bursting with piquant and earthy aromas.

Ouzo is distilled with the essential oils of anise and fennel seeds, as well as other spices like clove, cinnamon and occasionally mastiha resin, whereas mastiha liqueur is flavored exclusively with PDO Chios Mastiha.

Mastiha is quite rare, but specialty wine and spirits shops, especially in Greek neighborhoods, may carry it. It is also available from select online vendors.

Skinos is the local term for the mastic trees that grow on Chios. It is also the name of a popular brand of mastiha spirit, and the bottle you’re most likely to find on store shelves and behind the bar at Greek restaurants.

Last Updated: July 31, 2023

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