Spirits of the world: Mastiha from Greece

How a chewing gum became a liqueur

Mastika or Mastiha (‘mahs-Tee-ha’) is a liqueur from the Greek island of Chios that is flavored with a resin or sap from trees on the island. The word might sound familiar—it is derived from the Greek “to chew.” In English, it is ‘masticate’—meaning to chew or munch on.

Mastiha Trees
Mastiha Trees

It turns out that this resin/sap sheds its “tears” and became the original chewing gum

The resin or "gum"
The resin or “gum”

enjoyed as far back as the 5th Century BC, according to Difford’s Guide:

The ancient Greeks chewed mastic for fresh breath, as did the Romans, Byzantine Greeks and later the Venetians, Genoese and the Ottoman Turks.

The mastic gum is made into a liqueur that receives the “Protected Designation of Origin status on the island of Chios since it is the only place where the trees “cry teardrops” during harvest.

In Greece, Mastiha is served a number of ways: With appetizers, deserts or as a digestive. In the hands of the bar chef and mixologists, there are some terrific Mastiha cocktails being made around the world.

You can also buy the mastic gum itself on Amazon and there’s even a store called Mastihashop, where you can buy not only the gum but also other products made from Mastiha.

But if it’s okay with you, I’ll stick with the booze product.

Ya Mastiha

Ya Mastiha
Ya Mastiha

Allow me to introduce Nicholas (Nick) Papanicolaou, a passionate entrepreneur and founder/owner of Ya Mastiha, which is derived from the Greek toast Yamas—“to our health.” Nick is a Greek-American who had one of those ‘aha’ moments, which led him to shift his entrepreneurial efforts to the Booze Business and introduce Ya. Here’s how it started:

Growing up Greek-American, I remember longing for my summers to spend a few weeks in the picturesque Greek Islands. Every year, I invited a friend to join me so I could share my heritage. In the summer of 2009, twenty-eight of my friends from all over the world joined me in Mykonos to celebrate my birthday. Despite vast differences in cultures, personalities and ages, we bonded with the help of one unifying force: Mastiha liqueur.

Like most startups, the brand faces many uphill challenges—limited resources (people and money), trade acceptance (distribution, bars, and stores), and building consumer awareness and trial. But like any tenacious businessperson, Nick is well equipped to roll with the punches.

The brand is only in New York, but can be purchased on YaMastiha.com/Buy where a retail partner will ship it to most states. It has some traction among Greek-Americans, for obvious reasons. I was surprised when he told me that a significant number of sales are in Tarpon Springs, Florida, which, I learned, is one of the largest concentrated communities of Greek-Americans in the U.S.

Entering the mainstream drinking market is among the list of challenges.

The product

Ya Mastiha is 30% AbV (60 proof) and made with natural cane sugar and Mastiha from the Chios Island in _MG_3737Greece. It’s produced in the U.S. but Nick has plans to also introduce a product produced in Greece.

The taste? Well, a bit unusual. I enjoyed it on the rocks and found it to be an excellent digestif. I don’t generally provide taste reviews but to me Ya has a slight Ouzo/anise aroma but doesn’t get milky over ice. What I really like about it is what it does to a cocktail. Difford’s has some interesting recipes like the Greek Martini (Mastiha, gin, dry vermouth and a touch of ouzo) or Smoky Tears (Mastiha, mezcal, pink grapefruit juice and simple syrup) or Cosmopolis Cocktail (a variation on the Cosmo with a splash of Mastiha added).

Ya Mastiha sells for $32.99 and you can buy it online here, here and through Craft Spirits Exchange.

It’s a fun product best shared with a group of friends. Plate smashing is optional.

Yamas!

(Dear Reader — If you come across an interesting spirit/liquor from around the world that is not widely known, contact me and tell me about it.)

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The Birth of a Brand

Look out Rumchata, here comes a serious competitor

Bom Bom CocoMochanut Sales Sheet-1A while ago, a friend in the spirits business introduced me to some very interesting people developing a new product. I thought it would be worthwhile to follow their journey. One company is driving the liquid and the go-to-market efforts, while the other has developed the concept, branding and product strategy.

The latter, is a unique agency called Cops and Robbers and is run by Patricia Verdolino and Richie Beretta. They describe themselves as follows: Part Ideation House; Part Creative Studio; Not a Traditional Agency; But Agents Provocateurs.

I found them to be such a breath of fresh air as an agency that I intend to write about them in depth in my next posting. For now let’s turn to the product and its development.

The Parent

Meet Kevin Mowers who owns the brand and has been instrumental in its birth as a product and liquid.

Kevin’s background is in science and engineering and he began his work life in product development in the food industry working with such companies as Con Agra, Heinz and Campbell. Along the way he got his MBA in Business Development and Marketing and decided he wanted to be an entrepreneur.

Remember Jello shots? He developed a product called Gel Shooterz, which took quite a bit of effort to manufacture. Nevertheless, the brand overcame production hurdles and was on its way when suddenly the co-packer decided to sell and the new owners had no interest. The business did not jell.

Next came a stint at Diageo in the innovation area where he worked on whiskies, gins, flavors, distillates and other lab based efforts and innovations. Then one day he decided that his skills as an innovator and marketer might be put to better use. His company, Liquid Innovations was born in 2011.

The company consults and advises clients in a wide range of businesses and also looks into new opportunities to feed its entrepreneurial efforts.

The baby

Kevin’s new product, to be launched in early 2016, is Called Bom Bom and the first-born is named Coco Mochanut (mocha-nut). Here’s how he describes it:

Bom Bom Mochanut is an award-winning premium Caribbean rum made with cream, chocolate, coconut, and coffee flavor.

coco-mochanutIt’s a cream product that tastes, well, absolutely delicious. It’s slightly higher in alcohol than Rumchata – 18% AbV versus 13.75%. The product received a Gold award from a recent Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) tasting. Suggested retail price is $19.99 for a 750 ML.

Many consumers describe the taste of Rumchata as as the milk leftover after a big bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal infused with rum. Bom Bom’s Coco Mochanut tastes like a liquid Mounds or Almond Joy with rum. The target audience is millennial women aged 22 to 35.

Coco Mochanut is the first of a line of products with a similar approach but different flavors such as, Chocolate Bomsicle (think Fudgsicle) and Nutty Cup (think Reese’s Peanut Butter cups).

The Package

For some, the package might appear as kiddy. But it’s based on adult fashion trends.

As Kevin puts it, the product is “built on the chocolate loving kid in all of us that’s looking for some grownup fun.”

Patricia and Richie have this to say about the packaging, “It’s a contemporary fashion look inspired by Jeremy Scott, Pharrell Williams (BBC Ice Cream) and Moschino. It’s designed with the target audience in mind.”

And, by the way, the TTB approved both the liquid and the packaging.

The inspiration -- designers such as Jeremy Scott and Moschino
The inspiration

The challenge

Bom Bom is close to launch and Kevin is moving ahead full throttle in preparation for an early 2016 kick off. As is true for all entrepreneurial new spirits product launches, the key is distribution. But, the mainstream distributors, thanks to the dwindling number and big supplier pressures, are a very hard sell. In fairness, they already have a lot on their plate so it’s understandable that they will react cautiously, if at all. Recognizing this, he is smart enough to know that he needs to start slowly, demonstrate consumer acceptance and have patience.

cocktail_03-shakeMy advice to him is to spend whatever he can afford on product tastings where feasible and allowable. I also think the on-premise market will be very attracted to Coco Mochanut with such suggested drink ideas as the Fire Bom (with Fireball Whiskey) or Café Bom (with Patron XO Café) to name just a few.

Based on the tasting I had with my wife and friends his baby is indeed beautiful and will grow stronger each day in the market. One taste and you want to buy a bottle.

To my distributor friends and readers – want to meet the baby?

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Craft Spirits Exchange

A new venture that blends commerce and content

Join. Taste. Share. Explore. That’s the motto of an online startup looking to help craft startups.

CSX Promo (Large Banner)

If you find yourself, as I do, leaning more and more toward high quality craft and small batch spirits products, availability and purchase are often a problem. All levels of the business – craft producers, retailers and consumers – face hurdles.

The craft producer has limited budgets, a cluttered marketplace and is generally ignored by the mainstream distributors. Consequently, it is difficult for these producers to build awareness and to gain significant national distribution.

Retailers have low margins, need to depend on large brand deals and face limited shelf space for new craft products. In fact, the first question from a retailer when you walk in to pitch a new craft brand is very likely to be, “Which of the products that are selling do you want me to take off the shelf for your new start up brand?”

For consumers, lack of availability is a problem. If you live in a large metro area you may find a nearby store that might carry what you’re looking for and maybe they’ll deliver it. But, what about in the suburbs or smaller cities?

You can use companies like Drizzly, Thirstie, Flaviar, DrinkupNY, Binny’s and Caskers but for the most part you need to know what you want and you don’t always have the opportunity to get a range of reviews and/or ratings.

The Craft Spirits Exchange (CSX) approach

CSX describes itself as “the first and only online community and marketplace exclusively focused on artisanal craft spirits

 

from around the world.” They provide consumers with discovery of craft products, detailed information and access to hard to find or unavailable products.CSX_logorelease-02

They see themselves as a platform that, well, is like TripAdvisor and Amazon rolled into one. The CSX community provides loads of information about brands, events, recipes, and interactive tasting notes and reviews. There are more than 1,100 spirits profiled on their site.

At the same time, CSX works with spirits retailers nationally to provide a single online resource for a wide range of quality spirits. You name the brand and chances are they can provide it.

As to producers, CSX does not, at this stage in their development, charge a fee for being listed. Instead, they have a brand partnership program that provides links to websites, social media, product offerings and more. In the program so far are distillers such as Tuthilltown Spirits, New York Distilling, Mezan Rum and Finger Lakes Distilling.

The people

This new venture officially launched on October 1st and is founded by Luis Troccoli, a man passionate about being an entrepreneur and a craft spirit advocate. I asked him what makes CSX different from other sites. “We’re both about content and exchange of information as well as an ecommerce site. I don’t know any who do both.”

The CSX team -- Kelly Magyarics, Luis Troccoli, Steve Gilberg
The CSX team — Kelly Magyarics, Luis Troccoli, Steve Gilberg

He also seems to appreciate that craft spirits are more than just about the process. “More than just batch size, type of still or yearly production, these spirits have a unique story or heritage, often produced through artful or otherwise creative methods.”

The Chief Marketing Officer is Steve Gilberg, a real pro in digital marketing and communications with a string of successful ventures under his belt. Rounding out the team is Kelly Magyarics, an experienced published wine and spirits writer and educator. Kelly’s postings are fun to read.

Startup Woes

Unlike many new ventures, they have the product and marketing under control. In fact, here’s an interesting article from New York Business Journal about their launch event, which was top-notch. And, their website has a great look and feel and is easy to navigate.

Like many new ventures, funding is an issue but CSX is handling it better than most. For one thing they raised a quarter of a million dollars pre-launch and have increased their seed round to $750,000.

Here’s a link to their current fundraising effort. Their demo video is here.

Worth looking into, folks.

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