The Greek Amber Spirit
The only major Greek business to survive both world wars, Metaxa continues to produce its famed Greek spirit in the sun kissed vineyards on the idyllic island of Samos
Article by Andrew Steel
To the east of the Greek mainland, barely a mile away from Asia Minor across the Mycale Strait, lies an island nestled at the foot of the Aegean – Samos. Lushly green and kissed more than once by the sun, it is a small settlement; no larger by area than Leeds and by population than Perth, a vista dominated by two mountains, Kerkis and Ampelos. The former – chalky-white at its peak – is the tallest; but it is the latter that reaps greater rewards, its name the Ancient language for the word vine.
It is a telling moniker; for centuries, Samos has been famed for its wine production and its vineyards, rivalled only by its status as the birthplace and home of revolutionary philosophers like Pythagoras, Epicurus and Aristarchus. But amongst its other contributions, the island also produces the key ingredient of one of the region’s most famous commodities; the Original Greek Spirit, Metaxa, known in-house as the drop that captures the sun. Upon the face of Ampelos, from sea level to the sky, there grows the sweet crop of grapes that are made into the area’s famed Muscat wine – the base of Greece’s most internationally acclaimed alcoholic contribution.
Muscat is a way of life here, blessed by the ocean breeze a with almost every native family connected to the trade in some form. All vineyard owners belong to the Samos Cooperative, formed in 1934, to safeguard the sales of Samian wine to the continent, and protect stock from unscrupulous traders. It remains key to the continued production of muscat; the majority of grapes from two-dozen-plus villages make their way to the Cooperative after initial harvesting, where the vinification process takes shape. Here, in large-scale vessels measuring between 40 and 80,000 litres, produce is fermented to help develop the fragrant taste that is distinctly muscat – before the finished article is bottled and delivered across the globe.
High on a mountain side lives the Captain – a former merchant navy sailor who upon his retirement, returned to the island of his birth to take up is heritage as a winemaker of Samos. Introduced only as George, weather-beaten and with a shock of white-hair, his vines are hidden in the shadow of the family’s small, Orthodox chapel. Religion still plays a large part, amongst the older populations scattered amongst the hills – but it is matched by his passion for the grape. “We’ve had this way of life for well over a hundred years,” he states in halting English, surveying the crystalline blue seas gently lapping below. “We wouldn’t have it another way.”
It is the first step in the creation of Metaxa, the origin of which stretches back to 1888, when silk entrepreneur Spyros Metaxa desired to create a spirit that could be drunk and enjoyed neat, the smoothest of amber liquids. The result proudly bears his name; its crest, of a warrior from the Battle of Salamis, was taken from an ancient coin found within the foundations of the original factory in Piraeus during excavation of the site. It struck a chord with the founder, himself very much a risk-taker; as the only major Greek business to subsequently survive both the First and Second World Wars, it, as a symbol, remains steadfast to his indomitable legacy and courage.
If Samos is where the journey to the House of Metaxa’s final spirit begins, with the aromatic muscat of the island, then it is now Kifisa where that journey concludes. A suburb of the capital Athens, and home to regional head offices for Ferrari and Barclays, this is where the sons of Spyros forged a new factory, to tackle the increase in demand in the late 1960s. It is where the finest distillates are blended and aged in French limousin oak casks with the wine, and it is where the secret bouquet of additional flavours are added to create the finished product, under the watchful eye of the Metaxa Master, Constantinos Raptis.
Constantinos has always had winemaking in his veins; at 18 he persuaded his father to invest in a small vineyard where he could practice his love of the art. When he first arrived at the House of Metaxa in 1985, he apprenticed to the fourth master of the House, Evanglelos Skevis, and the first not to be a son of the Metaxa family itself. When he rose to the position himself seven years later, in 1992, he started to forge his own chapter in the story, overseeing the creation of his own personal favourite, the Metaxa Private Reserve, and the ultra-luxuriant Metaxa AEN for the brand’s 125th Anniversary (limited to 1,888 bottles taken from the company’s original Cask No. 1).
The casks are as important to the spirit as the bouquet of flavours Raptis adds to create Metaxa. At three and a half tonnes each, they hold the combination of distillates and wine, touched with rose petals and unknown Mediterranean herbs, and mature them over decades. The vast cellars that hold the secrets of Metaxa are immaculate structures, with over a thousand wooden vats lining the shelves in the dark, all offering up their Angel’s Share. It is this process that gives Metaxa the smoothness it is renown around the world for; it is these touches that make it unique amongst others.
Under the tutelage of its five Masters, the House of Metaxa has become a part of everyday Greek life. In Athens, whole bars are dedicated entirely to cocktails and beverages built around the golden spirit; in Samos, it is associated with luxurious experiences. For Raptis, preserving this premium quality is essential to holding fast to the name; but his personal future with the company hold anything else before he passes on the secrets to his own apprentice? He plays coy, but one thinks that Metaxa may be celebrating something new to share with the world before he walks off between the barrels and out to the Aegean sunset.