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.
It turns out that this resin/sap sheds its “tears” and became the original chewing 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.
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.
Ya Mastiha is 30% AbV (60 proof) and made with natural cane sugar and Mastiha from the Chios Island in Greece. 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).
It’s a fun product best shared with a group of friends. Plate smashing is optional.
(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.)