Dimitris Stainhaouer, Mastiha without borders

March 20, 2014
The inspiration behind Skinos, the true mastiha spirit, popular as a shot or a cocktail here in Greece and now beyond, believes the time has come for the Mediterranean to speak through its people.

He also believes that good ideas are out there just waiting to be found. This was more or less how he came up with the idea that has come to be known as Mastiqua, the first naturally flavoured mastiha water.

- Why the obsession with mastiha?

I have no connection with Chios (laughs), but mastiha has an incredible history and is stronglylinked to Greece.

- What makes Skinos different from other beverages of the same category?

First of all, Skinos is distilled from mastiha. It is a traditional though costly and laborious process by which mastiha spirits were made. This process was abandoned and most liqueurs now resort to mixing, that is, essential oils are mixed with alcohol and sugar. Mixing, bottling! This is an entirely different product and you realise it as soon as you drink it, regardless of whether you like it or not. So, the main reason why Skinos has reached beyond Greece’s borders is its quality. And here I am not just talking about geographical borders, but a product that is consumed in the USA not only by the Greek community but by the average American, for you will find it not only in Astoria, which is wonderful, but at the same time in good bars in Manhattan. Other factors that have contributed include the packaging and consistent quality, as well as the way we communicate how it can be enjoyed. We didn’t confine ourselves to the idea of a shot of iced mastiha that can be savoured after a meal or with a coffee, instead we entered the wider domain of bartending, cocktailing and Mediterranean cocktails. All these factors have helped Skinos and mastiha go far beyond Greece’s borders.

- How did Mastiqua come about?

It was a natural consequence. It is not just our persistence with mastiha, which we strongly trust as an ingredient with history, tradition and uniqueness. There is also the element of coincidence. During my many trips to the USA to promote Skinos, I had always been impressed by the large number of water-based products. I am referring to the so-called value-added water products such as flavoured water, or with vitamins and so on. At some point it dawned on me that in Greece we have mastiha which, according to Hippocrates, apart from being chewed, can also be boiled in water and drunk or mixed with honey as a cure for colds. I thought it might be a good idea to revive this tradition, particularly sincethe process of combining mastiha and water retains 99% of the water-soluble properties of the gum mastic, especially its healing and digestive qualities. Thus we created Mastiqua, the first of a new generation of products, which contains no sugar or other sweetener, but is delicious and good for you.

- In the framework of the company Concepts, do you work to achieve your goals on the basis of exhaustive planning or with some other approach?

We usually just “fall” on an idea (laughs)! What we have done so far has not been done entirely on the basis of some plan. Skinos, for example, was not really planned at all. We were importing and one day we said “why shouldn’t we make our own product and export it?” And what might this be? What would be worthwhile? A product that has no equivalent, not ouzo. The same thing happened with Mastiqua. We saw shelves abroad stacked with value-added water and we came up with the idea of mastiha water.

- How do you respond to the challenges of the times?

Well, although long-term planning is certainly important, modern times demand the strength of now. In other words, you must adapt to the needs of today and respond to the present, that is, to the opportunities you see, disregarding some and chasing others. Irrespective of long-term planning, this is how you must proceed. In effect, it is long-term planning that is constantly being reviewed and revised, again in a long-term framework. So you have a three- to five-year time scale, but you are ready at any moment to switch direction. This is very important, because circumstances have changed. It’s quite simple: how did Greeks enjoy themselves before 2008 and how since then? If you have planned to meet the needs of those consumers prior to 2008 and press ahead without taking into consideration the enormous changes that have taken place since then, you may have long-term planning, but it will be wrong.

- So how do Greeks enjoy themselves today?

Their entertainment has become more substantial and cerebral; and I see nothing untoward in this. They are much more spontaneous. Their choices are more considered and this is where we come in, for products with substance and values actually have something to say. They are not merely pretty packaging, a bottle, an extensive marketing programme or heavy advertising. All this will ultimately be paid for by the consumer.

And it is not only what is served to you that acquires value, but also the person serving it. The person who has tried it and thought about it. In the past you drank an exorbitantly expensive whisky and end of story. Nowadays, it is also of the utmost importance how something is served and the thinking of the person who serves it. This is precisely one of the elements of substance we spoke about previously.

I feel it is fair to say that historically, Skinos has followed a specific course in the Greek market. Initially, everything began with mastiha and the idea that we drink it after a meal, then came the bar shot and finally the notion of the Mediterranean cocktail that creates a certain culture, which I believe will firmly establish itself over time. The moment had to come for the Mediterranean to speak

- And what do you think the Mediterranean will say?

I think the concept will be spread primarily by the creators themselves. We are simply the means. The leading role will be played by bartenders, mixologists and chefs. We just provide the tools. It is they who shape developments and the Mediterranean trend will constantly grow stronger, because it is something that people in the business want; it is something that expresses them; it is a part of them.

- Will you be coming up with another Greek liqueur in the future?

I have nothing in mind at present. As a company we focus on what we are doing now. One obvious option with a brand like this would be to launch an ouzo and a citrus drink, in other words line extension. But we don’t see the creation of new things as an end in itself. We prefer to build further on what we have already created.

- What impressed you most about the story of mastiha?

I am continuously surprised by mastiha, not only the traditions associated with it but also its different properties. But for me, the most interesting aspect is how an entire island such as Chios became the apple of discord among Turks, Byzantines and Genoese, who wanted the island solely for its mastiha. So, in such a small place you can see the influences of several cultures so different from one another. In the region of Kambos you see Genoese mansions and walled orchards, elsewhere Byzantine monuments or ancient Greek temples. I find it remarkable how prized mastiha has been throughout history, so much so that wars were fought over it.

- Which famous historical figure would you like to invite for dinner?

Winston Churchill, because he is the definition of an interesting and contradictory personality, capable of the best and the worst. A person who, if he had been alive during some other period in history, would probably have been a drunk in a London pub. He was the personification of Europe’s victory over Nazi Germany. It’s no coincidence that Onassis, who always chose interesting people,was friends with Churchill.

- How do you see the situation regarding the current crisis?

With anxiety... I want the dizzy phase to end.

- Some say it won’t end

The dizziness will pass. Of course it is important what each person means by crisis. At any rate I see enormous creative forces being released and this is the result of the wake-up call from the crisis, which has hit society hard; of that there can be no doubt. But at the same time it also created conditions for the emergence of significant creative forces in the coming years. I see people of my generation, but also younger and older people, who want to do things. Some of them may have lost their job or their previous social status, but they are carrying on, coming up with ideas and reacting creatively, not passively. Ultimately, the crisis has also brought an air of rejuvenation. And we will see many new things. We are already peeking out of our shell. The crisis has made Greeks outward-looking again. We had become very introverted, which is only to be expected in an economy fuelled by domestic consumption. Now, we have suddenly become very outward-looking. Of course we are still waiting for the result of this huge change, but I believe we shall see it soon. It is of great importance in the professional life of each of us. Are you a journalist? You may find a job with the foreign media. Are you a doctor? You might want to consider working in Sweden or Germany. There are enormous resources of creativity which, with the unlimited capabilities of the Greeks, will flourish. 

- Which direction do you see lifestyle taking?

It is focusing more on substance than wrapping. People now define themselves by “I am” rather than “I have” and this is anincredibly qualitative change. Another thing I see in those around me is that previously, people would speak about prosperity, now they talk about happiness. You could see that they were gauging the quality of their life by what they possessed and what they spent. Today, the criterion is how they are actually living.

- What makes for a successful person?

Someone who is creative every day. This means a lot, that he or she is filled with emotions, that his or her brain is functioning as it should, that he or she is not occupied with other things that impede creativity, and that he or she has already achieved a number of things as prerequisites for success.

- Have you ever said “I give up”

No, never. I always derive pleasure from difficult endeavours, and I don’t believe we have achieved nothing. We still have a long way to go but we continue to strive. This entire undertaking has been so amazing that it has never crossed our mind for a moment to give up, not on account of sheer persistence but because we are enjoying ourselves; we really like what we do. So why should I personally give up? I feel that I am creating and sometimes I proceed at a fast pace and other times more slowly.

- What can’t you tolerate in others?

Personally I forgive everything. I try to put myself in other people’s shoes and understand the way they operate. But one thing I can’t abide is miserable types. People with bad energy, who are all doom and gloom and emit chronic negativity. They aren’t good for me.

- Is there a writer you see something of yourself in?

Karagatsis is a writer who has inspired me, particularly his novelJunkermann.He has certainly influenced me, even though I discovered him relatively late on, because his characters convey a positive attitude to life, perhaps with the exception of Chimaera.

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