Monday, October 5, 2009

A Liqueur Recommended by Hippocrates

One of the things you expect when you attend cocktail-centric conclaves like the Manhattan Cocktail Classic (held this past weekend) is you'll discover some weird and different new cocktail trend or product looming on the horizon.

The first person I saw at the MCC was Portland, Maine, bartender John Myers. I put the question to him, and he said, "Oh, yeah. I just had something this morning that's bizarre." He was referring to Skinos, a Greek spirit that neither of us had ever heard of. It comes in a sleek, clear bottle with a thick white stripe around the center. In the stripe is cut a clear oval through which you can see, on the other side of the bottle, the word Skinos. Very chic.

The back label will tell you that the stuff inside has been savored and celebrated for not centuries, but millinnea. But it doesn't tell you what the liquid is, or where its derived from. For that, I had to go to the website. Skinos is a distillate of the resin extracted from the ancient Mastic tree. Haven't head of it? Well, that may be because you don't live on the Greek island of Chios, the only place these trees grow.

You have to really want this spirit, because it's hard to get. The tree (called "The Crying Tree") purges resin only once a year, in June and July. It takes several weeks of "pricking" and you may only get 80 grams of resin per tree. The sticky result is called Mastiha. The resin is then carted to a warehouse and hand-sorted to get rid of the bad quality resin. It is mixed with neutral spirit and distilled in bronze alembic stills. The result is combined with sugar, more alcohol and mineral water.

If you believe the website, none other than Hippocrates touted Mastiha, saying it could cure stomach aches and fight colds. Dioscurides, a doctor & herbalist from 100 BD, also recognized Mastiha as good for the stomach, the digestion and the teeth. (It apparently has a whitening effect. Roman ladies used to use Mastiha toothpicks.)

This is the only spirit I can think of where the main tasting notes are mint and horseradish. Yet the overall liquor is sweet, owing to the sugar. I liked it. It was a beguiling combination of bitter and sweet characteristics. And it tasted like nothing else—always a plus. I suspect it will find a future in the cocktail world.

There are other Mastiha spirits in the world, by the way. As for Skinos, Lesley Townsend of MCC said they found her rather than the other way around. The liqueur is available in Canada; it's not available in the U.S. yet.

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