Greece academy: a visit to House of Metaxa

Samos vineyardsDating back to 1888, Metaxa is one of the world’s leading spirit brands, big in countries such as Austria, Germany, Poland and its native Greece. But in the UK, it is little known and, for most people, remembered only as a spirit from sunny holidays. But with three million Britons travelling each year to Greece, the UK is an untapped area for growth, says Panos Sarantopoulos, chief executive of the House of Metaxa, based in Athens. “Metaxa has grown organically, almost accidentally, over the years, and our UK sales are very few. In the UK, the field is wide open.”

Greeks traditionally enjoy Metaxa neat or over ice, but Panos says the big opportunity in the UK is its mixability. The spirit is already widely used in long drinks and cocktails in Greece and other countries, including simple serves over ice with an orange slice, adding either tonic or fresh pomegranate juice. In Greece and other countries, it has developed a branded kit for serving the Metaxa in a small globe-shaped glass alongside a glass filled of ice and tonic – the Metaxa Suntonic serve (pictured).

Metaxa SuntonicOne of the challenges facing them is the spirit’s uniqueness. When it was first established by Spyros Metaxa in 1888, it was known as a cognac but the French put a stop to that in the 1920s. It was then dubbed a brandy but, because of its added ingredients, that was ruled out in 1987, putting it officially outside of the core recognised spirits categories.

Now called simply “the original Greek spirit”, Metaxa starts out like a brandy, with a variety of distillates made from dry white wines from different parts of Greece. After periods of ageing in oak casks, the distillates are blended and mixed with a small amount of rich muscat wine from the Greek islands of Samos and Limnos. Finally, Mediterranean herb and floral extracts are added – a secret recipe apart from rose petals. “The terms ‘cognac’ and ‘brandy’ are golden cages,” Panos says. “Metaxa has the field of ‘smoothness’ to play with.”

Most of the Metaxa range uses a star system, linked to the maximum number of years that the distillates are aged. The core expression is Metaxa 5 Stars – the original spirit created by Spyros Metaxa – with soft, slightly woody flavours. The 7 Stars has a fuller, smoother taste with notes of ripe fruit and vanilla, made with longer-aged muscat wines. The 12 Stars is the newest expression, launching this summer in the UK, which has a rich flavour and hints of chocolate, made only from Samos muscat wine. The Metaxa 12 Stars, Metaxa Private Reserve and Aen Metaxa – made from over 200 distillates – take the spirit to finer heights.

Panos was brought in by the brand’s owner Rémy Cointreau last year to drive growth in the brand, especially as its domestic market faced a downturn. He was previously chief executive of champagne house Krug after starting his career at Hennessy and becoming senior vice president of sales at Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. It was a homecoming for the 44-year-old who grew up in Athens not far from the House of Metaxa.

Under his steerage, the company is stepping up engagement with the on-trade in the UK through brand ambassadors and its distributor Cellar Trends, but it is raising its profile across all markets through a new programme, Academia Metaxa. Aimed at the trade, it takes people to Greece to immerse them in the spirit’s production and brand values.

Along with the first group of “academicians”, I was taken to the mountainside vineyards of the Aegean island of Samos, off the coast of Turkey, where the muscat grapes grow alongside olive trees and orchids. We tasted a range of muscat wines from the island at the Samos wine museum, home to the growers’ collective that supplies Metaxa. Back in Athens, the rest of the process, including a hands-on blending session in the cellars, was covered at Metaxa headquarters, led by Costas Raptis, who has been Metaxa master since 1991 – only the fifth in line since Spyros. The tour ended in House of Metaxa’s new circular multimedia room – resembling a futuristic set from a James Bond film – to learn more about the brand and sample the different expressions.

With people from the UK on-trade set to experience Academia Metaxa, the spirit is poised to expand beyond its distribution base of Greek restaurants. “Over the past four years, Metaxa has been through rough times, mainly because of the crisis in Greece and in its historic markets,” Panos says. “It is up to us to not only write a new page in the history of Metaxa but make the message of ‘smoothness’ known the world over. We have this incredible open playing field ahead of us.”

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