Cover photo from Skinos Mastiha Official Website
Our March/April Featured Libation of the World comes from the island of Chios, Greece.
What would you say if you had to describe Greeks in just a few words? We would say they are some of the most hospitable people we have come across in all our travels. Tourism is a major industry in Greece, but that doesn’t always translate to feeling appreciated and welcomed as a guest. One of the most striking traits in Greece is in most restaurants, especially local places, you will be provided at least one and, maybe, several times a free food or drink at every meal. That was our experience not only on the mainland but on Mykonos, Santorini, and Crete.
It expresses their appreciation for your patronage, a gift of sorts to say thank you. In our most recent travels in 2021, we were often greeted with a complimentary appetizer. At the end of the meal, we would then be given a complimentary small carafe of liquor and dessert as they left the check. These offers of kind hospitality were always welcome and lovely. In all our travels so far it is unique to Greece.
Our Introduction to Mastiha
During Joelle’s first trip to Greece with her sister, the liquor given complimentary at the end of the meal was almost exclusively Mastiha. (Our 2021 trip was a mix of Mastiha and Vinsanto.) We never missed out on trying something new; so we went for it not even knowing for sure what we were trying. It was quite a shock the first time. Imagine drinking tree bark when you were least expecting it. Technically that is what you are drinking. To our surprise, we quickly came to enjoy it and were disappointed when it wasn’t provided at the meal’s end.
Mastiha is created with tree resin from the Mastiha tree that grows on the island of Chios, Greece. The unique climate on the southern end of the island is the only place in the world the aromatic resin of this quality is cultivated. There is quite a story to this unique herbal liquor with its magical qualities. As you look closely, there are Mastiha products everywhere in Greece. From candies, elixirs, cough drops, digestive aids, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, gum, sunscreen, skincare, coffee, cereal bars, a culinary herb…..you get it. The Greeks love their Mastiha; in any form, they can get it.
What is Mastiha?
Mastiha starts as a semi-transparent sap that solidifies in yellowish tear-drop blobs. It’s native to the southern side island of Chios in Greece. There have been attempts to graft such trees in Italy, Turkey, and even in northern Chios with no success. It is due to the combination of the volcanic soil of southern Chios, an exceedingly dry micro-climate, and perfected eugenics over generations where only the best-yielding trees were propagated.
Sold whole or ground, mastiha is used as a flavoring in cooking and as a fragrant, refreshing additive to cosmetics and personal hygiene products. It is also found in paint and varnishes, mastic is added to such products for its oily properties and color.
You may have already had some without realizing it. It is extensively used in Eastern Mediterranean and Arab cuisine in desserts, pastries, pudding, candy, fruit preserves, and to flavor beverages like tea or coffee. Mastiha can be used in both sweet and spicy dishes as a spice. It is popular in meat dishes with lamb, fish, poultry, and goat. It can even be used as a natural chewing gum (mastic gum). When ground and mixed with sugar or salt, mastiha is excellent for adding flavor to savory or sugary preparations.
What does it taste like?
Musky and aromatic, mastiha has a distinct and refreshing earthy flavor of wood, fresh trees, and pine. It sounds strange, but trust us it is quite good. When drinking the Mastiha spirits, that is precisely how you feel, refreshed.
For almost 3.000 years, the power of mastiha has been around. It has spread throughout the world through emperors and adventurers. Mastiha has traveled to Genoa, Istanbul, Athens, and worldwide as a culinary delicacy also known for its excellent digestive attributes.
The English word “masticate” comes from the Latin adaptation of the Greek word “to chew,” which is mastichein. Back in the day before toothpaste, the wealthy would chew mastiha to fight plaque and freshen their breath.
The Island of Chios is the fifth largest of the Greece islands in the northern Aegean Sea and is known for the unique and rare phenomenon of Mastiha cultivation. For centuries, the local economy has prospered by cultivating lentisc trees that produce the aromatic “mastiha” resin. Mastiha is a resin retrieved from the mastic evergreen, a shrub of the species Pistacia lentiscus. Native to the Greek island of Chios, mastiha has a tear-drop shape when solidified, earning the name “drops or tears of Chios.”
Chios is not only known for its Mastiha but also its medieval villages, beautiful beaches, and fertile soil. It is a prosperous island known for its wealth due to its strong economy tied to mastiha. It is about a 35 minutes flight from Athens international airport.
To learn more about Chios Greece, check out Chios Island Official Tourism site
What is the Mastiha tree?
Mastiha trees are known as the “Crying Tree.” They are predominantly only cultivated in one place in the world: the small island of Chios. The unique microclimate is the only one that can produce the aromatic resin needed to make Mastiha spirits. Harvesting takes place only one time per year during June and July. The process consists of several “prickings” and it takes several weeks to extract mastiha teardrops. The tree is like “crying out” the Mastiha resins that take 10 to 20 days to get solid and collected.
Attaining the resin
About 24 villages in southern Chios Island are known as the mastiha villages. The tree is pruned during the winter months to keep its round shape. This is so the resin can be collected most efficiently. Spring brings the back-breaking work that is required to harvest the resin.
The farmworkers prepare what they refer to as “the table” by weeding a round area below the mastic tree and sweeping it. They then spread limestone to create a flat surface where the resin will fall and congeal but not dissolve. They then make shallow incisions starting from the bottom and going to the top; the bottom produces thicker droplets and the top finer ones. About three to four weeks after the incisions are made, they collect the drops from “the table” and pick those remaining on the trunk. If it rains even once, the mastiha resin will be lost.
They gather their resin crop in the fall and clean it by sifting, washing, and removing impurities.
The Mastiha Process
Once the resin is harvested, Mastiha is carefully transferred in wooden coffins covered with boat textiles to a cool warehouse. There the village residents pick out only the highest quality resins and clean them by hand. It is a thoughtful and tedious process.
The distillation process begins when Mastiha is mixed with fine alcohol (quality matters) and is put in bronze tanks – called an alembic, which is then heated by fire. This process results in a delicate extract with a unique aroma.
The next step is the blending, which occurs when fine quality sugar, alcohol, and mineral water are added to compliment the mixture and create a distinctive and balanced clear white Mastiha spirit. The spirits are bottled ideally in high-quality glass bottles and corked with a natural cork.
UNESCO and Protecting the Mastic Trees
Though mastic trees grow all over the Mediterranean, only the variety in the unique microclimate of Chios’s southern area produces the unique aromatic sap from which the liqueur is made. Mastiha was given the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the EU, and UNESCO recognizes its traditional harvest as a living heritage of humanity. The EU has also recognized mastiha as a traditional herbal medicine for digestive problems.
In August of 2012, disastrous wildfires spread across the island of Chios, scorching over 31,000 acres of land. As a result, more than half of the island’s mastic orchards were destroyed. Because it has a protected designation of origin from the EU, the fire not only impacted Chios farmers, who lost almost 60 percent of their crops, but it also seriously impacted the global supply of the mastiha.
The trade of mastiha took a big hit after 1900 when Thomas Adams mass-produced chewing gum in the United States under the name Chiclets from the resin of the Mexican sapodilla tree and marketed it worldwide.
Cooking with Mastiha
Mastiha is used as a spice and has to be mixed with salt or sugar to temper its strength because it is potent and can overwhelm the dish’s flavor. If you wish to use mastiha simply grind the frozen drops in a mortar and pestle..Measure what you have and following a 1:10 ratio, mix it with salt or sugar. Mastiha is usually added in small amounts, as you would with all-powerful spices. A little goes a long way.
How to enjoy Mastiha
Served cold and straight-up as a digestive at the end of a meal is how it is most often served in Greece. It is how we first experienced it and prefer it that way to this day.
It also can be used in many different types of cocktails. Check out our wide range of cocktail recipes below.
Where to purchase Mastiha
Masthia spirits have gained much greater popularity in recent years. This is believed to be due to the trend of creating new and unique cocktails. Mastiha is seen more and more in bartending competitions worldwide.
As a result, Mastiha can be easily found in most US liquor stores. However, it is fun to bring back from Greece as it is comparatively inexpensive. We always grab some in the duty-free shops before we board the plane in Greece. There is a sweet grocery store on the main level at the Athens airport that has a great selection of Masthiha liquor and other products. Our favorite place to pick some gifts and snacks for the trip home or a bottle or two to launch our visit.
Places in the US to find Mastiha is Total Wine or if you don’t want to go out and live in a large city you can get some delivered often within an hour or two by Drizly.com (Drizly is an affiliate link and we may get a small commission if you order from them). Even Amazon.com has Mastiha Spirits for sale as well of gum and the spice.
Our favorite brand of Mastiha spiritis is Skinos. It will also be the easiest to find in the US.
If you are interested in purchasing other mastiha products, especially the medicinal ones, check out the Mastiha shop. It is fascinating all the products they carry.
May we suggest a few recipes for cocktails?
Planning a trip to Greece? Check out our Greece Travel Guide
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