“Mastiha”…pronounced mas-TEEKH-ha…Made from the dried sap pearls of an evergreen shrub related to pine and spruce trees…Literal translation: “to chew, to gnash the teeth”…Possibly the most labor-intensive liqueur made anywhere in the world…Tastes like NOTHING else you will ever put into a glass…Weird…foreign…aroma like a bottle of Pine-Sol…
…those are the dry facts of the fine art of Mastiha. Oh, forgot one thing…
Not kidding. And this new FOS Mastiha is nothing short of a game-changer.
My involvement in the beverage world, now (shockingly, appallingly) entering its fifth decade, was sparked mainly by having grown up in two of the world’s most dreary and uninspiring food traditions. I was raised in the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia, of Dutch, English, and (although I didn’t know it at the time) deep Irish ancestry. My family, except for my Dad, were tee-totallers. Beer, whiskey, and especially – Oh, My God! – wine did not exist, in our cloistered hills of Giles County. Our diet was beef and ham-intensive, bread was Wonder Bread off a Kroger shelf, beans were a dietary staple (brown beans cooked with fatback or pork ‘n’ beans, out of a can), potatoes were on the table at 3/4 of all meals, Spam regularly and hideously showed up at center of plate, and fish was salmon out of a can, made into bready patties, and pan fried. Our “spice rack” was salt, pepper, and a can of oregano that was so old that the metal lid was rusted on and could only be removed with a claw hammer…not kidding, Part Two.
The first time I tasted chili, it had no cumin or chili powder or garlic or other seasoning in it. My father made it as stewed tomatoes, browned hamburger, and chopped green peppers and onions…and nothing else. Getting the picture? – vanilla, lowest common denominator, pallid, bland…
Is it any wonder that so many chefs were born in Virginia? It’s at least arguable that my entire adult life has been a search for all that world of flavor that I never once experienced in my childhood.
So, for me, the weirder the better. I may just be the Andrew Zimmern of the beverage world. I’ll taste anything. I don’t like everything but I’ll at least try it and it does not need to have alcohol in it. But I, like most people, am a product of my own history. I tasted around in the tiny, inelegant world of Retsina – that perverse and stunningly memorable ancient wine that evolved in Greece when they discovered that adding pine sap to wine helped preserve it for later drinking – back in my shortly-post-college days. It caught on – in Greece, mercifully nowhere else. I found it revolting and still do. Greek friends, of which I had quite a few, accused me of cultural insensitivity, to which I would reply, “Just how much Pine-Sol do I have to drink to be ‘sensitive’?”
Mastiha is where all that conifer sap should have gone in the first place. It would have saved mankind from the scourge of Retsina and might have caught on outside of Greece, which – let’s be real, here – could really use a mass infusion of foreign currency, in almost any way they can get it. In Retsina, that pine scent and flavor strongly suggests a glass of off-dry Gewurtztraminer with a urinal cake in it. In Mastiha…well, it probably will not be everybody’s cuppa but I have now poured it for a whole buncha people I was pretty sure would hate it and…they all said, “Hey, this is really pretty good!”
The process for making this stuff is mind-boggling…
On a small island in the Aegean Sea, close enough to Turkey to hit some unsuspecting Turk with a slingshot, lies the small Greek island of Chios (KEE-yos). On this island and this island alone, you’ll find a tree called the Mastiha, also known as the Crying Tree. As has been done for a thousand years, makers of Mastiha prune around the trunk of each tree to to enable them to stand and work underneath. In the first part of the Greek summer, they tidy up and level out the area below each tree where tiny white pearlescent droplets – called “mastic” – will fall. They spread white soil under the trees to catch the mastic droplets and dry them out after they weep their way out of the tree. After a month or so, workers cut small slits into the tree bark, so that its resins will leak out in drops…which, for thousands of years, the Greeks have called “tears”.
Once the mastic hits the ground and dries in the white soil, it’s collected – and I am not kidding about this – in wooden coffins(!), covered with cloth, and trucked to a cool processing house, where women of the villages pick the best quality Mastiha by hand and clean them with what can only be called obsessive care. Get this picture: women, many of them wizened grandmothers sitting in a cooled warehouse, cleaning droplets of dried sap, by hand! The mind reels at the sheer…what do I call it?…intensiveness(?) of this much labor to produce a liqueur for which the jury is still very much out for about 90% of the planet. After the droplets are dried and cleaned, they’re poured into vats of high-quality alcohol (essentially Vodka) and are then augmented with a secret blend of botanicals and natural sweeteners and then heated over a traditional wood fire, melting the mastic tears, so that the final product picks up just the tiniest hint of alluring smokiness that underpins a big profile of – what else? – pine resins, graced distinctly by notes of cucumber, vanilla, gooseberries, anise, sweet herbs, pink grapefruit, licorice root, caraway seed, and lemon peel. On the palate, it’s rich and sweet and viscous. It shows its flavors perfectly well when ice cold, (after my initial tasting, I kept my bottle in the freezer) but, like anything else, it opens up when it warms and displays a few more notes; a warm background woodiness like licking a sharpened pencil and a spiciness that suggests nutmeg and sumac.
The main message of this post should be this: FOS Mastiha is delicious…DELICIOUS. Not kidding. If you tasted this stuff without knowing what it was, you would, I believe, respond to it exactly the way my step-son did when I poured it for him:
Fool: “What do you think?”
Chris: “Wow. Different.”
Fool: “Okay, but…do you like it?”
Chris: (sipping) “Uh…yeah…Surprisingly…I really do!”
Chris is not a guy who seeks out weird stuff to drink ot eat. He loves a great IPA but will, unlike his step-dad, drink a Coors Light if one’s handy. He had a small glass and then had a refill. And he’s right: it is Different. Proudly different. But weird only in the sense that its surface characteristics – the pineyness of it – is not a regular part of the American flavor spectrum…or at least, it wasn’t…
Think of the flavors in most imperial IPAs. One of the classic hops flavors is…grapefruit. Even more prominent: pine and spruce resins. Hops contain resins that are, in some varieties, chemically akin to those found in mastic. More and more people, as craft beer slowly permeates the American consciousness, begin NOT to find the flavor of resins foreign or odd. To drinkers of the US-style IPA or Imperial IPA, Mastiha is actually going to taste somewhat…familiar. In this FOS version, as opposed to a couple of others I’ve tried, the infusions of botanicals and the residual sweetness are, to my palate, perfect. It’s beautifully balanced, wickedly drinkable, and subtle in a way that belies its rather bombastic source materials.
And, miracle of miracles(!), once I started playing around with this in cocktails, I immediately found that it harmonizes sweetly and subtly with a baffling range of mixers. Ginger beer and Mastiha is a match made in heaven. My Moscow Mules have increasingly become Hellenic Mules, with a straight-up subbing of Mastiha for Vodka. I’ve also made the Mule’s grandfather, the classic English Gin Buck, with a 50/50 split of Mastiha and a good botanical Gin (I used Bruichladdich’s “The Botanist”) and came up with something that made my spine tingle. I’ve slipped it into the classic Gin ‘N’ Tonic, Bloody Marys, and straight grapefruit juice, in which it was dead-on perfect. I’ve also invented a couple of things, one of which I’ll share here:
Lowball glass with lots of ice
1 0z. FOS Mastiha
2 oz. Papa Bueno Silver Tequila
2 drops, a good Italian Amaro
5 oz. Bundeberg Ginger Beer
Juice and peel of lemon slice
two slices raw ginger
I could drink this all freakin’ summer…and probably will. The gorgeous balance of flavors is surprising and refreshing and the Mastiha shines through like a searchlight.
I cannot tell you what a pleasant surprise FOS Mastiha has been or how wickedly drinkable it is, both just as a sipper or in cocktail recipes. If you’re not one of those stuck-in-a-rut types for whom the thought of tasting outside your hermetic little adjunct Pilsner/Chardonnay/Screwdriver world is horrifying, I believe you’re going to find a whole new appreciation for Greek potables, pine trees, and Drinking Outside The Box.