The Spirit of Greece
By Xenia Taliotis | Photography courtesy of House of Metaxa
It’s late spring on the Greek island of Samos, and the sun is scorching the slopes of the mountain Karvounis. Vines claw out of the earth, breaking free from the inhospitable, stony soil, their gnarly branches holding up clusters of the yellow-green, small-berried muscat grapes that have made this tiny island in the North Aegean a world-famous wine producer.
The floral, honeyed muscat is also a key ingredient in one of Greece’s most celebrated products—Metaxa. I remember Metaxa from childhood when my parents, who were never big drinkers, would produce the same dusty bottle from the back of the cupboard anytime they had guests. Back then, in the 1970s, Metaxa was a brandy; before that, it had been considered a cognac. Its labeling changed first after the French secured AOC status for the region in 1936 and second in 1987 when brandy was reclassified to exclude spirits that contained anything other than wine distillates. Since then, Metaxa has been, literally and metaphorically, in a class of its own.
“There is nothing like it,” says Yiannis Skoutas, who owns the little terraced vineyard on Samos where I found myself standing. “It’s unique, and it is integral to our national identity. You cannot come to Greece and not have Metaxa; it would be like visiting Athens and not seeing the Parthenon.”
Little has changed in Samos’s viticulture for centuries, and Skoutas cultivates his grapes just as his forebears did. “It is as it was in Metaxa’s day,” he says. “It is very small-scale production and still done by hand. The vineyards are still all family owned; the only differences are that we use trucks instead of donkeys for transport and we now sell our grapes to the cooperative, which makes the wine here on the island and then sells it on.”
The Metaxa that Skoutas refers to is Spyros Metaxa, the merchant who created the sublime amber drink that has come to encapsulate the heart and soul of Greece. Metaxa wanted to bring a new spirit into the world that wouldn’t burn the throat like a flamethrower but would entice with sweet intrigue. He wanted something as smooth and seductive as metáxi, which means “silk,” and worked on blending wine distillates with aromatic muscat, rose petals, and Mediterranean herbs until, in 1888, Metaxa was born.
The first distillery was in Piraeus, but in 1968, all production was moved to the House of Metaxa in Athens, and that’s where I headed the day after my tour on Samos. There I met Constantinos Raptis, who has been Metaxa Master since 1992.
Raptis is the fifth person ever to hold the title. A qualified chemist, he is part master blender, part perfume maker, part enologist, and wholly Metaxa magician. He has created some of the most remarkable styles in the spirit’s history, including Metaxa 12 Stars, Metaxa Private Reserve, Metaxa Angels’ Treasure, and the precious Metaxa AEN, a limited collector’s edition made from two hundred of the oldest blends in the Metaxa cellar.
I started with the Star collection, where the number of stars indicates how many years the distillates have been aged.
The Metaxa Master is also a master of discretion: only two people know what goes into the secret bouquet of herbs that makes Metaxa what it is, and he has no intention of adding a third. “It is not necessary to reveal this information,” Raptis says when I ask him to tell me how many botanicals are used. “The only ingredient we speak about is the May rose petals, and then only because the scent is so distinctive that we cannot conceal it.”
I followed Raptis into the cellars, walking past vast cobweb-covered casks until we reached four barrels bearing the names of the founder and his family—Spyros, Despina, Elias, and Alexandros. “These are our oldest barrels,” the master reveals. “They are from the early days of Metaxa, from the Piraeus distillery, and they are filled with blends that have been maturing for decades.”
Raptis speaks only in general terms about how Metaxa is made: the wine distillates are aged in French Limousin oak casks, blended with the best muscat, and then mixed with the secret Metaxa bouquet.
I later got my chance to taste some of the varieties at the House of Metaxa. I started with the Star collection, where the number of stars indicates how many years the distillates have been aged. I sipped a 5 Star, a flowery blend full of jasmine and violets, then progressed to the fruitier 7 Star, and then on to the 12 Star, a Raptis creation. This last blend is candied and rich, with dark chocolate, honeyed figs, and dried orange. It’s as sensuous and soft as velvet.
Finally, I tried the Angels’ Treasure, a spirit so nuanced and sophisticated you need a fine palate to savor its full expression. I tasted an explosion of spices—cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves—but Raptis encouraged me to concentrate and to reach for the fruits—plums, prunes and oranges—and the peppers, tobacco, oak, and coffee. It’s a sensation, but I knew I didn’t get the most out of it. For me, it was like listening to an orchestral symphony when you’ve previously only ever heard “Chopsticks”; you appreciate the whole but might struggle to pick out the components.
Creating something new “is an inspirational labor of love,” says Raptis. It brings into play all his skills and combines artistry with alchemy and science with creativity. And each new Metaxa blend carries the past into the future. That, for the master, is the greatest reward of all.
How to Serve Metaxa
Metaxa is very versatile, so you can enjoy it in a variety of ways. The Star collection styles can be served on the rocks but are also fabulous in a range of cocktails—served simply with lemonade or tonic water, in classics such as manhattans, sidecars, and mojitos, and in all-out extravagant concoctions produced by award-winning mixologists.
The premium varieties Private Reserve, Angels’ Treasure, and the astonishing AEN are best served as digestifs. Take your time with them and enjoy every note and flavor—you’ll be well rewarded.
Orange Summit Cocktail
By House of Metaxa
1 1/2 ounces Metaxa 7 Stars 1 1/2 ounces freshly squeezed orange juice 3/4 ounce fresh lime juice 3 dashes chocolate bitters 1/2 ounce liquid sugar cane
Grapefruit Slice Orange Zest Chocolate Shreds
Frost the shaker and the glass beforehand. Pour into the shaker the Metaxa 7 Stars, the orange juice, the lime juice, the chocolate bitters, and the liquid sugar cane.
Shake and filter into the glass. Add the garnish and serve. Cheers!
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Visit Metaxa.com to learn more or plan a visit to the House of Metaxa.