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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ouzo? That's for tourists. While in the Greek capital Athens, real tipplers drink mastiha.
A white spirit distilled from the gum of the mastic tree (possibly the earliest form of chewing gum) and sweetened with sugar, mastiha's flavor is much more low-key than the brash anise twang of ouzo. Although some detect a quiet aniseed note, most liken mastiha's flavors to subtle spearmint or shochu-like floral.
"In the last three years, there has been a cocktail bar explosion in Athens," says Dimitris (Jim) Kiakos, bar owner of The Gin Joint (Lada Christou 1) in Athens.
"The new drinking culture has been born by people who worked as bartenders and now are bar owners and not businessmen - and that means they really care."
In particular, drinks have progressed from mojitos and caipirinhas - the international default cocktails of the past decade - to an emphasis on classic cocktails (Sidecars and Gin Fizzes), made with fresh herbs and other premium ingredients. Consider, for example, Gin Joint's 70-plus gin offerings and a precious Hoshizaki ice machine.
"When we talk about cocktails, the most important thing is the ice!" Kiakos says.
Mastiha-spiked drinks figure highly in the equation. Two of Gin Joint's signature cocktails include the Fig Sour (mastiha, house-made fig marmalade, lemon and brown sugar syrup) and the Rosemary (mastiha, Aperol, limejuice, ginger syrup and apricot-and-rosemary puree).
For travellers seeking a good tippling location, Kiakos points to the centre of Athens, particularly the Syntagma area and the bars that line Karitsi Square, or the upscale shopping and residential district of Kolonaki.
In particular, he recommends Baba au Rhum, where rum drinks dominate (of course), 42 bar (Kolokotroni 3) and tequila-happy Dos Agaves (Avramiotou 12).
While you can always pick up a bottle of mastiha in Athens to bring home as a souvenir, most likely you can score a bottle closer to home: It's sold under the Skinos brand name in North America and Europe.
RECIPE: Skinos Fig Sour
Courtesy of Dimitris Kiakos, The Gin Joint, Athens
This drink is styled on the classic Sour, which combines a base spirit with tart citrus and a sweetener to balance things out. Here, the Mediterranean's own mastiha is the key spirit. Brown sugar syrup and fig marmalade add rich complexity to the drink. 6 cl Skinos Mastiha 2 cl fresh lemon juice 1.5 cl homemade brown sugar syrup 1 barspoon homemade fig marmalade
In a Boston shaker, combine all ingredients with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a tumbler over crushed ice.
(Editing by Peter Myers and Paul Casciato)
Kara Newman is the author of "The Secret Financial Life of Food", Columbia University Press; publication date autumn 2012. Any opinions expressed are her own.