Not so long ago I was having one of those inane late night conversations that went something along the lines of “I wonder if they can ever make a new drink? Sure we have different types of drinks but will they ever find something they can make a new spirit from, in the way we discovered potatoes make vodka? Or are we all tapped out now and this is our lot?” Little did I know, a couple of weeks later I would be receiving an invite to head to the Greek island of Chios to learn all about just that, a drink made from the distilling of the sap of the Mastiha tree and in turn making an entirely new spirit and not just that, but an entirely new spirit that doesn’t give you a hangover so of course, I packed my bags, prepped my liver an traveled to this far flung island to learn the secret.
Mastic resin has been used for centuries in all sorts of guises, to flavour food and drink, made into tinctures and utilised for its health benefits and as an ingredient in cosmetics .However, the process that the team behind Axia have put in place is a totally new concept. Where others create a syrup from the resin and then use the flavour, these guys blend the crystals with alcohol before double distilling to create a drink that is so clean you don’t even get a hangover and believe me I should have. It has taken three years to nail the process, trial and errors of various methods, varying quantities and alot of science. With details such as length of bottle neck to give the perfect pour, the team behind this ain’t messing about,
The Masthia tree is a gnarly evergreen tree (technically a bush) native to the med, however it is only on the island of Chios that the bark ‘bleeds’ the tears of the mastic. That in itself is something sort of magical is it not? In a landscape littered with mythological creatures, peppered with tales of gods and goddesses, stumbling upon a blanket of weeping trees felt otherworldly. As if one day a long long time ago Poseidon reared from the waters, claiming one of the Island’s girls as his own and the trees have been weeping ever since. That’s the beauty of Greece – spend a minute near the Aegean ocean and you’re writing tragedies quicker than you can say Mount Olympus.
Walking our way in to the Masthia field.
Branches of the Masthia tree.
Our trip included meeting a leading Mastiha producer responsible for the mastic harvest that then goes on to create Axia, watching him work, learning the craft before heading to the neighboring island to learn about the distilling process. Speaking at length to theproducer it quickly became apparent this is not just a job this is a way of life, steeped in history and tradition and it is this that makes the drink so special. He tends to his crop as he would a family, his trees are an extension of him and with the care and nurture, he seems to humanise the plants. Referring to the branches as the bones, explaining to us how we must carefully cut the bark to release the blood or tears of the tree but not go too deep or we will hit the veins and hurt the tree. The process of releasing and collecting the resin is just that, a process. First the ground surrounding the trunk of the tree must be swept from debris, then calcium is put down as it provides a cooler surface than the dirt beneath. From here, the next three months are spent cutting each of his 1500 strong crop, slashes are made all over the branches, ready to weep. Once the cutting is complete, each tree is brushed, knocking the solidified sap crystals onto the calcium beneath. On hands and knees, the resin is swept before being collected, sifted, sifted again and then washed (another three month process), ready for transportation to the neighbouring village where the women of the community further clean and cut the crystals. As a chef, I always say “cook with love or you will taste the hate”. I truly believe this sentiment extends to the growing and producing of the goods and with the love that is thrown up on these trees, you can be sure to taste something special in the end result.
Dried sap or ‘tears’ of the Mastiha sap
Cutting and brushing the tree.
Sweeping the fallen tears.
The cleaning process.
As with any ‘crop’ the success of a mastiha harvest is often at the hands of the gods, Greek ones at that, the most volatile of the Gods. Farmers have to hope and pray for good weather, not too dry, not too wet or the entire lot can be ruined. Given its rarity, supplies are limited, making this drink even more exceptional.
Once the crystals are clean and ready for the distillery they are mixed with alcohol and water and nothing more which brings me back to my aforementioned point – this drink is so clean it seems impossible to get a hangover. The result? A dry, aromatic, earthy flavour that lends itself perfectly to an Axia & Tonic, fantastic garnished with a sprig of rosemary and some pepper corns but it doesn’t stop there. It has oodles of flavour notes but as they are all so well balanced it works well in a multitude of cocktails. It is also delicious neat and I am convinced it will make the ultimate palette cleanser – watch this space. The possibilities are endless, and did I mention? NO HANGOVER!
After our tour of the farm, our chat with the producer and us all having a bash at sweeping the trees we headed to the nearby village of Mesta (a village so beautiful there will be a whole other column landing shortly) where we sat down for the most glorious al fresco lunch where our Gyros were accompanied by Axia Tonics as standard. Sitting on the cobbled street in the afternoon sun, taking our time and laughing till our sides hurt, it really didn’t get more Greek than this. That was until dinner that night in the castle ruins of Chios town where we feasted on a fourteen course meal, served family style, further encapsulating the warmth and community of the Greek people. It goes without saying that the drink of choice was Axia – light and refreshing as an aperitif, complimenting every morsel of food we ate and closing the party as a neat little shot – and still NO HANGOVER!
My whirlwind tour of Chios and all it has to offer came to and end but I can safely say that I am well and truly swept up in the Greek spirit in more ways than one.
You can find out more about Axia, including where to buy it here.