Resin on a mastic tree, Chios
COVER STORY

Greek Spirits Guide: Everything you need to know about mastiha liqueur

READING TIME
As long as it takes to eat a Greek salad
Mastiha has gone from a popular but humble liqueur, served after meals in tavernas, to a key ingredient of some of the best chefs and bartenders in Greece. So pull up a barstool as we explore why this aromatic alcoholic drink made from the famous mastic resin of Chios has exploded in popularity.

Just a sip of mastiha liqueur produces an explosion of aromas. It carries with it the spirit of an entire island and its famous tree, which its people have cultivated with imagination for centuries to produce the resin from which so many products are made. And as for the aftertaste … it’s that of a traditional Greek spirit that has managed to break boundaries and make its way into bars all around Greece.

Why is mastic resin so valuable?

There was a time when mastic (harvested from the tree of the same name) fell out of favour, despite being cultivated in the villages of Chios for centuries. In the last 20 years, however, mastiha liqueur (along with many mastic products) has enjoyed a much-deserved comeback. 

Careful production and marketing of the uniquely scented resin has seen it gain international recognition for its use in cosmetics, medicine, food and … yes … the alcoholic drink that is a popular around Greece.

But mastiha liqueur has had to fight hard to reclaim its place. For several years, it was just a chilled alcoholic drink consumed in shot glasses after meals in tavernas and Greek homes, something that did not do it justice.

This changed as prominent Greek chefs began using it to light up their dishes, celebrating it as a uniquely Greek culinary product. Lefteris Lazarou has flavoured his signature fish soup with mastiha in Michelin-starred Varoulko, Christoforos Peskias (of Balthasar) has used it in meat dishes, Stelios Parliaros uses it in chocolates and sweets at the Sweet Alchemy, and even acclaimed Spanish chef Andoni Aduriz has used it in one of his lamb creations at two Michelin-starred Mugaritz near San Sebastian. 

Added to that, mastiha liqueur has increasingly been used as a creative ingredient in cocktails. There are a number of exceptional mastiha liqueurs on the market that have earned their place on the shelves of bars, not just in Greece but around the world, with Greek bartenders in particular increasingly appreciating its unique aromas.
 

Where does mastic come from in Greece?

If you get the chance to visit the mastic villages of Chios, you’ll witness a fascinating tradition that involves entire communities. The harvest involves "wounding" the trunk of the low-growing tree with a surgical incision (known as kentima) that allows the resin to slowly emerge as a teardrop, carrying the beauty of all nature concentrated in one scent. The entire process looks like a ritual and if you ask a local, they’ll tell you: “Every tree, every branch has its own feelings. It is important that the tree does not suffer.”

Despite the tree growing in many eastern Mediterranean counties, only on the island of Chios mastic is produced in this way. As such, Mastiha Chiou (as it’s known) is a product that is exclusive to Chios in a cultivation tradition that has been included by UNESCO on its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

What a strange tree! You could say it has a personality. How else do you explain that, outside Chios, the same tree – even if it manages to shed tears – produces mastic in very small quantities that is totally odourless?

Added to that, the mastic tree (pistacia lentiscus) is notoriously difficult to grow and collecting and processing the resin is labour-intensive. Cleaning 20-30kg of mastic can take three months as all the work is done by hand with tweezers, crystal by crystal. So visiting a mastic village and mastiha-tasting is the best way to appreciate the wonderful aromas and understand the unique connection of the drink with the people who have dedicated their lives producing it.
 

How is mastiha liqueur produced?

Like many other mastic products, the liqueur is processed on Chios. Essentially, the crystals are distilled and pure high-quality alcohol is added to the resulting mastiha spirit. It’s a technique that involves either distilling the pure crystals in the stills (which is difficult as they stick to the sides as they melt) or with the addition of mastic oil.

The first official distillery on Chios can be traced to 1912, immediately after the liberation of Chios from the Ottomans, and was mainly used to scent ouzo. More than a century later, there are several companies producing mastiha in this authentic way. 

Learn how to drink ouzo, Greek-style!

Denny-kalyvoka
Denny Kallivoka
Food, Wine & Spirits Editor

Food, Wine & Spirits Editor, Founder of #aegeancocktailsandspirits

 

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