Using the resin of the ancient mastiha shrub, Axia is turning Greek tradition on its head. Millie Milliken headed to Greece to find out how this intriguing spirit came to be – and how it can be served in cocktails
The mastic shrub on the island of Chios in Greece has been providing the island (and further flung destinations) with a special resin since the 5th century BC. This elixir has been used in myriad different ways, from an antidote to snake venom to being used for embalming purposes during the Egyptian mummification process and for settling stomachs. When the Ottomans ruled Chios it was worth its weight in gold.
It is also used to make Axia, a clear and characterful spirit distilled from the resin tears of this ancient shrub that was launched to market in 2021. Now, if you’re thinking of the traditional Greek liqueur of mastiha, hold your horses – while Axia may also use mastic as its primary ingredient, there is nothing liqueur-esque about it. Instead, master distiller Maroussa Tsachaki has managed to extract the distinctive flavours of mastiha resin – pine needles, liquorice, rose petals, a touch of pepper and fresh citrus – into a refreshingly dry, clean and distinctive spirit that has become a favourite in bars across Greece, and here in the UK too.
From Athens’ The Clumsies to London’s Silverleaf (where it is served in one of my favourite cocktails, Verbena olive oil, alongside Roku gin, Citizens of Soil olive oil, lemon verbena cordial and orange bitters), Axia is proving itself as a bartender favourite. One of the world’s best, Monica Berg, one half of Tayer + Elementary in Old Street, has even mixed it with ingredients including coffee, green walnuts, Amontillado sherry and even Greek yoghurt. The options, it seems, are limitless.
“Axia has a long history in the spirits industry with its two founders, over 300 years combined, one being a seventh generation Bacardi family member and the other a fifth generation distiller,” explains Tony Chvala, the brand’s charismatic CEO with whom myself and a group of other journalists travelled to Chios to see the brand’s home with our own eyes. “We wanted to bring a new white spirits category to life and chose Mastiha for many reasons,” he continues, alluding to its digestive qualities as well as the resulting spirit’s low-calorie count. From the original idea to the final liquid, it’s taken four years to bring Axia to life.
The process of procuring the mastiha, however, is not a quick or easy one as we learned when we visited one of the island’s mastic expanses containing a not so small number of 1,500 shrubs. It’s hugely demanding physical work for growers like Augoustis Neamonitis to get the resin from the shrub to the Chios Mastiha Growers Association which regulates all mastiha production on the island. Neamonitis goes through the stages of the harvest with us, which usually takes place between July and September. First, he clears the floor surrounding the roots and sprinkles with calcium. He then makes small cuts in the bark of the shrub’s branches to get to the resin and over time, the resin solidifies into tear-like drops. The resin is then gently scraped from the shrubs onto the floor, before he collects it and sifts to separate from other detritus.
The cleaning of the resin is extremely important – it is washed and dried no less than three times to make sure it is ready for processing. Heading into the village of Pyrgi on the island – famous for its striking architecture and distinctive black and white tiled buildings – and we find a woman sat outside her house, a table to mastic resin on her table and using a sharp knife to remove any remaining grit or dirt embedded in each nugget. In peak season, the streets are lined with other residents doing the same. Indeed, the processing of mastiha is embedded in Greek culture.
Turning mastiha into Axia isn’t an easy process either, but with master distiller of Plomari Ouzo Distillery, Maroussa Tsachaki, responsible for creating the recipe and delivering the liquid, the final process of maceration and distillation has resulted in this entirely new Greek spirit.
Walking through the distillery’s traditional alembic copper stills brings home the craft that goes into making a spirit like Axia – “We use traditional alembic copper stills, whose size and shape were carefully calibrated to deliver a unique sensory experience in the final distillate – layered complexity, velvety textures, and delicate balance. There were plenty of failed attempts before we landed on the right-shaped still,” laughs Chvala.
The whole distillation process takes 10 hours with the mastiha crystals carefully macerated and then redistilled at 80C in the alembic stills. The head, hearts and tails are then measured the old-fashioned way, by nose. “When the subtle aromas of citrus come through, we know we’re coming to the heart,” says Chvala. The still-strength spirit is rested onsite in stainless steel containers for several weeks to marry the flavours and develop a smooth character before purified local water is gradually added and gently mixed to achieve its 40% ABV.
Keeping it real
During our travels with the Axia family, the question of mastiha’s sustainability is raised. “The mastiha farming process in itself is sustainable,” explains Chvala, with each shrub producing for over 70 years as well as planting 20% new shrubs every year. However, with demand for mastiha outstripping supply, and trading of it becoming more and more prevalent oversees, the danger of running out of mastiha is something that Axia and the mastiha industry is keen to get on top of – with the possibility of artificial mastiha production also on the table.
Until then however, with an ever-curious consumer and the growing popularity of clear spirits behind it, Axia is, I think, looking at a bright and exciting future. Just over three days of enjoying it in its home, it’s clear to see that this bold and nuanced spirit has quickly become adopted by its Greek family. Back on home soil, and in a world of growing flavour enthusiasts, I have no doubt that Axia’s character will capture the curiosity of home drinkers too. Besides, it’s always worth having a bottle around to cure snake bites.
How to use Axia in cocktails
Got a bottle but not sure how to use it? Axia works well in so many classic cocktail formats. Here’s one to try at home.
Line the tumbler rim with salt (smoked if you’re feeling sophisticated). Mix all ingredients in a shaker and pour over rocks. Garnish with a wheel of lime.
Axia is available from Master of Malt. Click here to buy.