Can This Ancient Greek Spirit Known for Its Healing Powers Catch on in the U.S.?

Kleos is being billed as Greece's first luxury spirit made with Mastiha, a liquor made from resin from the Mastiha tree.
October 12, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
Mastiha Spices-KLEOS
Before any alcohol production occurs the farmers harvest the raw resin from July 15 to the end of September. Farmers clean the Mastiha after it is harvested by hand. Courtesy of Stratis Vogiatzis
Courtesy of Stratis Vogiatzis

As I admire the scene at Dante, a highly regarded New York City cocktail bar known for its Italian amaros and negroni cocktail menu, Effie Panagopoulos’s description of the Greek liqueur mastiha is what gains the attention of two travelers. The eavesdroppers let Panagopoulos know they’ve traveled from Kuwait to conduct a little research. They’re thinking of opening a bar back home, and Panagopoulos’s passionate description of how mastiha can transform palettes has the duo intrigued.

Though revered in Greece and popular with Greek Americans, Panagopoulos and her brand, KLEOS Mastiha, are on a mission to educate consumers why mastiha is made for the modern palette.

It’s not all Greek to me

Though the islands of Santorini and Mykonos may be familiar to Americans who’ve sampled mastiha, it’s Chios—and only the island of Chios—where you’ll find this authentic Greek product being made. Authentic Chios mastiha is stamped for approval by the Chios Mastiha Growers Association, a collection of approximately 3000 families that own, protect, and harvest the mastiha trees. Often referred to as the tears of Chios, the unique taste of mastica originates from the resin sap of the mastica tree known as mastic, and forms the shape of a tear drop as it slowly hits the ground during harvest season.

A farmer harvests the sticky sap, also known as tears of Chios, from a mastic tree.
Courtesy of Stratis Vogiatzis

The substance is so sticky that special mats have to be placed under the tree in order to capture the sap. If you’re wondering whether the thick, gummy substance might be found in other products, modern chewing gum can trace its origins back to hardened mastic sap. Mastic has also been used as a remedy for a variety of medicinal issues including stomach ailments and even eye health as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni investigated, though we’re pretty sure any impact on sight are negated when combined with alcohol.

With a scent similar to eucalyptus or sage, familiar flavors of mastica might include the taste of cucumber, gin, tea, and spices like dill depending on who’s drinking. “There’s nothing else that tastes like it,” explains Johnny Livanos, who has a dedicated mastiha selection at his family owned restaurant Molyvos in New York City.

Livanos, who loves keeping a chilled bottle of mastiha in his refrigerator at home as well as using mastiha in savory cocktails along with mezcal or gin, is happy to see Greek spirits taking off after years of obscurity. “A lot of Greek restaurants are giving away the mastiha for free,” says Livanos, a kind gesture that has ultimately been counterproductive to raising the spirit’s street credit. However, where some businesses see free shots as a way to thank customers, others see an opportunity to create something completely new. And beverage entrepreneurs are banking consumers want more than just another B-list celebrity mezcal brand.

A muddled reputation

“Greece has never had a good reputation when it comes to wine and spirits,” Panagopoulos reveals. Though Ouzo has its fans, the taste of anise and the burn that follows can be off putting for many who’ve tried more economical versions of Greece’s most popular spirit. “Retsina is the cheap table wine that gave Greeks a bad reputation for winemaking as the barrels were historically sealed with pine resin to give it a Pine-Sol smell and dare I say taste,” Panagopoulos adds, a true Greek tragedy if there ever was one.

According to the International Wine and Spirits Record (ISWR), a firm that provides data and analysis for the alcoholic beverage industry, a report from June 2019 that analyzed the world’s 100 fastest growing spirit brands in 2018 did not include any Greek-made spirits. “I launched YA Mastiha in 2012 and learned within two years why the category won’t work in the U.S.,” recalls founder Nick Papanicolaou on his attempt to bring mastiha to the masses.

Mastiha-KLEOS Bottle
KLEOS Mastiha bottle.
Courtesy of Guillaume Jubien

For Panagopoulos, a career spanning decades in the spirits industry as a Brand Ambassador and Marketing Manager led her to creating KLEOS. Partnering with Greece’s first commercial female distiller Dr. Maroussa Tsachaki of the Isidores Arvanitis Distillery, her recipe uses a neutral grain spirit as its base, a small amount of sugar, as well as both mastiha tears and mastiha essential oil to provide the most impactful natural flavors. “Distilling is both science and art, and presenting a drink to the public needs high amounts of both art and entrepreneurship to succeed,” explains Tsachaki. However, even the best tasting spirits need a devout audience to survive.

Right drink, right time

Today’s consumers are extremely conscious about what they’re putting into their bodies. That’s why a spirit based on one of Greece’s favorite natural remedies is a particularly appealing fit. “My signature cocktail, the KLEO-patra is only 110 calories and four grams of sugar,” states Panagopoulos. KLEOS’ founder is even shaking up traditional tastings by hosting happy hours with boutique fitness studios, as she herself is a certified personal trainer and natural bodybuilder.

Mastiha-Four Tempers
Four-Tempers bottle.
Courtesy of Four-Tempers

Other entrepreneurs like Papanicolaou have a different take on why the category can now be successful. “We feel that the growing popularity of gin in the U.S. is an indicator that consumers are once again seeking more complex and botanical flavors,” Papanicolou says. Four Tempers Mastika, Papanicolaou’s new brand, hopes to reap the benefits of that wave, as IWSR reported earlier this year the gin category experienced the largest gain in global beverage alcohol consumption during 2018. But for those involved in promoting mastiha, changing the perception on Greek made spirits through education is the ultimate goal.

Greek mythology or consumer reality?

“I compare the journey to the mythological story of Sisyphus, who was punished by Zeus to eternally push a boulder up a hill,” says Panagopoulos. Though we’re not sure of Sisyphus’ state of mind, Panagopoulos’s determination and endurance will most likely take her to the top.

As one of few female founders in the liquor industry and the only one promoting a Greek made spirit, she hopes that her sacrifices will help inspire others to connect with their heritage and achieve their goals. “With the ever-changing role of women, we also need to focus on the buying power of women,” Panagopoulos says. “And that doesn’t mean making products pink.”.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—A new distillery tells the true—and often untold—origin story of Tennessee whiskey
—Bollinger Champagne is launching a 007 limited edition vintage to celebrate ‘Bond 25’
—4 James Beard-nominated chefs collaborated to create WhistlePig’s latest rye whiskey
Some of California’s most famous wines came from a science experiment
Why you’ll never get a fresher beer than right now
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.