The people of the Balkans love their distilled spirits! Mastika is a unique after-dinner liqueur that most Balkan countries produce.
There are differences between “mastic” mastika and other mastikas however, and here is a simple explanation!
What is Mastika?
Mastika is an alcohol or liqueur produced across the Balkans. There are actually two different varieties, Greek Mastika, and mastika from everywhere else. Greek mastika (or mastiha) is the most famous, and is the only variety derived from actual mastic. In other countries “mastika” is actually an anise seed liqueur.
Mastika usually has an alcohol content of 30% or higher.
All About Greek Mastika (Mastiha)
First, let’s talk about Greek Mastika. If you’re here for anise mastika, skip ahead.
What is Mastic?
Mastic is the resin or gum harvested from the mastic tree. It is used for making Greek Mastika or for flavoring other dishes. It is also reported to have many health benefits. This sap is also known as “Mastika tears.”
Where do Mastic Trees Grow?
Mastic “trees” are actually large shrubs, and are native to most areas of the Mediterranean, particularly on the Greek island of Chios.
The reason that only Greek mastika is made from mastic, is because Chios is the only place that mastic is harvested by scoring the bark of the tree to extract the resin.
This traditional process has been protected in the EU so that only Greece can harvest mastic in this manner. In a way, Greek mastic has been patented.
How is Mastic Harvested
Beginning in July, mastic farmers make slices into the bark of the mastic tree about every two weeks.
The tree starts producing the sap in order to heal the farmers cuts.
The tree must be at least 5 years old to begin harvesting mastic, but it takes 15- 20 years to reach maximum maturity and production. From about 15 to 50 years old, the tree produces best.
In September and October, farmers harvest the mastic using small scraping tools to knock off the lumps of firming sap.
The mastic is then swept up from under the tree, and sifted to remove the sand. Any mastic that turned to powder with scraping is lost. At this point it is stored (leaves and all!) until the sap completely hardens.
Once the sap has fully hardened, it is rinsed with water, and then sorted BY HAND to separate any remaining dirt, pebbles, and leaves. The mastic drops are separated by size.
The cleaning and separating process can take several months. The cleaner the final product is, the higher the price.
After the local procedure is complete, the mastic is cleaned and sorted a final time at a processing plant.
Mastic can be sold for about $35 per 100 grams.
Is Mastic Safe to Eat?
One would hope that mastic is safe to eat, since people clearly do, but it is generally considered a good idea to consume only small amounts at first to build a tolerance.
What Does Mastic Do?
Mastic is touted as somewhat of a cure-all for stomach and digestive issues, as well as small skin wounds or irritations.
It can be consumed in capsule form, but many people chew the sap like chewing gum. Of course the mastika liqueur is also supposed to provide the health benefits.
The flavor of mastic is hard to describe. Unsurprisingly most people say it tastes like anise, which is a flavor similar to black licorice.
I say unsurprisingly, because the rest of the Balkans make mastika from anise, so it makes sense that it is a copycat flavor.
However, some also describe mastic as a pine or foresty flavor, or even similar to rose.
History of Mastic
Mastic has been harvested since the time of the Ancient Greeks, and was rumored to be used by Hippocrates himself.
The tradition continued and mastic was used as a treat and treatment throughout the Roman and Byzantine Empires.
Cooking With Mastic
Mastic is used throughout the Mediterranean region as a seasoning and flavor, usually in desserts.
In Greece there is of course mastiha liqueur, but it is also used in breads, ice cream, cheese, and sweets.
In Turkey you can find mastic flavored Turkish delight.
In North Africa, mastic is most often used in cakes and other desserts, but it is also used to stabilize meringue.
Other Uses for Mastic
Most commonly mastic “tears” are sold as a chewing gum. You can find Chios mastic for sale around the world for this purpose.
Mastic is also used as a food additive and even a varnish.
Is Greek Mastika Rare
At peak productivity levels, a mastic tree can only produce about 200 grams of mastic in a year. You might remember that a tree reaches max productivity at about 25 – 50 years of age, so already mastic is pretty rare.
Fires in 2012 and 2016 damaged up to 90% of mastic trees on the island of Chios, making mastic even more valuable.
Once you factor in all of the mastic that is sold for other purposes, there is not a lot left to make the liqueur.
Surprisingly, even though mastic is in short supply, a bottle of mastiha retails for only about $40. No, that’s not “cheap” but it’s not crazy expensive for a distilled spirit.
Ouzo vs Mastika
Ouzo is a Greek anise liqueur, just like the mastika available throughout other countries in the Balkans, where Greek mastika is made from mastic.
Basically, there is Greek mastika (or mastiha) and mastika everywhere else is the same as ouzo.
What Countries Have Mastika?
Second to Greece, Macedonia is probably the most famous place to find mastika.
Macedonians often take credit for having invented the anise flavored liqueur. In Macedonia, it is made with grapes and anise, and is considered the country’s national drink. Mastika Strumica is Macedonia’s most popular variety.
Bulgaria also has their own famous version of anise mastika: Mastika Peshtera which has a whopping 47% alcohol content. It is popular mixed with menta, a mint flavored liqueur.
Mastika vs Rakia/Raki vs Ouzo
The differences between the distilled spirits knows as mastika, rakia, and ouzo are subtle, so let me be specific:
Mastika is considered an anise version of rakia (or raki), which is a strong Balkan alcohol, usually distilled from fruit. So it’s like rakia, but a specific variety.
Mastika throughout the Balkans except in Greece, is an anise liqueur.
In Greece: Ouzo is the name used for what is the equivalent of mastika everywhere else in the Balkans – an anise liqueur.
Therefore, ouzo would almost be considered a variety of raki. Since it is the same thing as Balkan mastika. Obviously ouzo is a name specific to Greece, so that is the main difference.
You could say that ouzo is a Greek anise raki.
If you want to know more about rakia, which is similar to brandy, I have written all about it here.
How is Mastika Made?
Mastika is made the same way that rakia often is.
Grape juice is combined with anise seed and honey and distilled to make the liqueur. Often this is done in someone’s backyard copper still.
What Does Mastika Taste Like
Both anise mastika and Greek mastika are supposed to taste herby and almost like licorice. Greek mastika has more of a fragrant or perfume-y quality that is hard to place.
Unlike other hard alcohols like rum or vodka, mastika is sweet.
How do you Drink Mastika?
Greek mastika is served chilled, usually at the end of a meal, and is intended to be consumed straight.
Anise mastika on the other hand, is supposed to be served room temperature, as the chilling process is thought to make the anise taste too much like cough syrup.
Anise mastika is also served as a digestif.
There are no staple cocktails made from either Greek mastika or anise mastika, but often it is used in artisan cocktails containing lemon, lime, or mint.
Ready to enjoy?
5 – 10 Mint leaves
1 oz Mastika
1 oz Rum
1/2 Lime – squeezed
Muddle the mint in the bottom of your glass. Add the lime, mastika, rum, ice, and stir. Top with soda water and garnish with more mint if desired. You could also try making it without the rum, for a more herby cocktail.
Remember that mastika is already sweet, thus you don’t need sugar, but feel free to muddle the mint with some if you prefer a sweeter cocktail!
This recipe works with either Greek or anise mastika.