The Unlikely Rebirth of an Ancient Greek Spirit

Though thousands of years old, mastiha spirits are experiencing a renaissance in Greece's modern cocktail scene. Hope Ewing on the uses and cultural significance of this tree sap liqueur from the island of Chios.

Last winter, a bottle appeared at our LA cocktail bar in packaging reminiscent of a bikini on a model in Mykonos, with clean white lines and cut-outs revealing stick-writing-in-the-sand font: “Skinos Mastiha Spirit.” The accompanying press release touted aromas of fresh-torn spearmint leaves and “a sun-drenched rocky Mediterranean hillside covered in wild herbs.” It sounded delightful, but in a refrain that has become far more frequent in the bar world of late, our immediate reaction was: What is it? 

Mastiha spirit, it turns out, is a traditional Greek digestif made from mastic gum, the crystallized resin of a shrubby evergreen tree from the Aegean island of Chios. Its profile is unfamiliar for the American palate, falling somewhere between a mix of herbs and root vegetables (first-time American tasters often report a dominating flavor of carrots). In Greece, though, mastic is a familiar flavor, and a nostalgic one. Prized by the ancient Greeks for its healing properties, mastic gum and its derivatives serve as both medicinal remedy and food flavoring throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, where they’re used for everything from treating indigestion to freshening breath to flavoring sweets.

“When I was a child, my mother chew[ed] a mastic chewing gum when she went out in order to keep her breath fresh,” says Thanos Prunarus, owner of the lauded Baba Au Rum bar in Athens. “My grandmother had a small shot of mastiha liqueur every afternoon with her coffee. She died full healthy [at] 95 years old.”

Mastiha spirits have always been a part of Prunarus’s rum-centric bar program, and he’s not alone in his unabashed enthusiasm for Athens-based Skinos, in particular. The brand, founded in 2001 by Managing Partner of the Greek corporation Concepts Ltd. Demetre Steinhauer, was initially intended as an export but saw unexpected popularity in the domestic cocktail scene.

“There is a huge trend in Greece among bartenders using local products along with imported quality spirits and bitters,” says Spyros Patsialos, formerly of Faltso Bar in Athens. Local bar menus have an affinity for Mediterranean flavors and spirits used in classic cocktails—fig, mahlab, Ouzo and rakia, to name a few—and while mastic is currently a little-known flavoring in the West, growing exports of mastiha spirits may change this.

The traditional spirit has become a source of national pride and innovation in the exuberant cocktail scene of this otherwise troubled country.

Skinos began hosting an annual cocktail competition five years ago in Athens, involving local craft bar heavyweights such as Dimitris Kiakos of the Gin Joint and Patsialos, among others. Whether the excitement surrounding the competition is driving the brand’s popularity, or the reverse, the outcome is the same: the traditional spirit has become a source of national pride and innovation within the exuberant cocktail scene of this otherwise troubled country.

The strictly regulated production of mastic gum, and its sometimes-violent history, adds to the intrigue. Mastic gum is an EU domain-protected agricultural product that can only be legitimately sourced from Chios, Greece’s fifth largest island. While mastic trees (Pistacia Lentiscus) are found all over the Mediterranean, only those grown in the unique microclimate of Chios’s southern coast “weep” the all-important sap from which it’s made.

These unique trees made Chios a point of continual conquest by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Genoese and the Ottoman Empire—throughout history, nearly every rising power in the Mediterranean has wanted a stake in Chios and its lucrative crying trees. It was the Genoese who built the fortified medieval mastichochoria, or mastic-producing villages, and when the island suffered a devastating massacre by the Ottomans in 1822, these towns alone were spared leveling due to their economic importance.

Modern producers in Chios stay true to traditional methods, scoring the bark of the mastic trees—which can live for up to 100 years, soaking up decades worth of soil character and Aegean sun—then collecting the resin that drops to the ground. The area around the trees is swept clean and covered with calcium carbonate powder to keep the sticky resin free from debris, and the accumulated mastic “tears” soon crystallize into hard clots that are powdered or packaged for a variety of uses.

Skinos begins as a neutral spirit that’s macerated with those clots, then redistilled, sweetened and diluted to make a 30 percent ABV liquid that tastes far different from anything else on a back bar in Los Angeles. It’s a singular flavor from a foreign landscape—volcanic soil and saline breezes, the tough herbaceous character of a botanical anomaly that has defined this island for thousands of years.