Roots, the history of ancient craft liqueurs


15 aprile 2024

We had a chat with Nikolas Smyrlakis who, together with his brother Manos decided to go back to their roots and breathe new life into their family’s distillery, the oldest in Greece. Today, Roots produces a range of 100% Greek premium craft liqueurs, and the Divino series includes two non-alcoholic vermouths.

Can you tell us about how you got the idea of creating an entirely Greek series of liqueurs and non-alcoholic vermouths?

Then years ago we decided to go back to the roots. Our family, uncles and great grandfather, have the oldest distillery in Greece, in Kalamata since 1850. My brother and myself had different careers. I am an electrical engineer and at the time I was doing a PhD in Bocconi in Milano, and my brother Manos is a chemist. In 2013 we decided to go back to Greece and create a new brand, but based on the old recipes and the Greek traditions. And we created Roots, a premium craft range of traditional recipes with unique ingredients. Later in 2019 we decide to develop the first non-alcoholic vermouths, based on the tradition of Hippocrates wine in ancient Greece. Hippocrates was the first to create wine infused with wormwood and herbs, as a medicine, he created the world’s first vermouth. Roots Divino was the world’s first non-alcoholic vermouth.

Greek spirits have hidden treasures in terms of flora, herbs/spices, history, recipes and traditions. However, until now it was kept for ourselves, within the country, for locals. Not exported, communicated outside our country. Greece is not only ouzo, the best things are not explored, and our vision is to share with similar cultural friends and neighbors in the mediterranean, like Italy.

Can you tell us about the first steps to realize this project and any difficulties you encountered?

The first steps were to find the best ingredients and create the most premium and natural Greek spirits, from the traditional recipes. Background in chemistry helped a lot, but also the family heritage and tradition inspired us and helped us. Like every new start, we were ready to put effort and realize our dreams, so this has been very pleasant. We literally packed a bag of bottles, once the first batch was ready, and went on door to door. We had no background in HORECA or bartending or sales, but we were excited to meet, introduce ourselves and learn from the market.

In particular, we would like to know something more about the ancient recipes you took from Greek tradition. Also, what is the drinking tradition in Greece with regard to herbal liqueurs?

In Greece, herbal liqueurs like amari in Italy are not so popular. Usually sweeter liqueurs, and specially mastic is enjoyed as a digestif, after a nice meal. Indeed Mastic has since ancient times been used to help digestion, and was famous for medicinal properties, especially in the stomach. Mastic was also the first ever "chewing gum" in Ancient Greece, even the word masticare comes from there. It is a soft and piney resin, particular in the whole world, and cultivated only on one part of the Greek Island of Chios. Another Greek tradition we draw from is Rakomelo. Rakomelo means raki (grappa) and honey (meli in Greek). It comes from the Aegean Sea and Crete where in the winter they were mixing the raki with honey and spices to drink it warm as a remedy, or cold in the summer to chill out.

Can you tell us about the botanicals you chose – how they are grown etc. - and the production process you are using?

Mastic is unique in the world. It is only produced on Chios island, by the ancient mastic cooperative of Villages. Mastic production has been protected throughout the ancient Greek years, the roman years, the ottoman years and today. It is a PDO ingredient, and can only be found on this part of the island. Roots Mastic is 100% distilled mastic, no other ingredients whatsoever is used, and the whole flavor profile comes from the mastic resin. Rakomelo is raki with honey, and we use thyme honey from Mani region in Southern Peloponnese, the highest quality honey in Greece. Diktamo herb from Crete is an ancient medicinal herb, used for healing the battle wounds in Ancient Greece and in wild herbal teas in the Mountains of Crete. It is in the family of wild oregano, collected from steep gorges.

Finally we source cinnamon (kanela) from Ceylon, where true cinnamon is growing, and Roots Kanela has also a fascinating story, coming from the Greek Tentura PDO liqueur (tintura in Italian), homemade kanela infusion liqueurs in Patras port. Except for Roots Mastic, Roots Kanela and Roots Diktamo are macerated. We have experimented a lot to identify ideal maceration conditions, ideal temperature per botanical, alc/vol, duration, mixing/standstill intervals. Some botanicals are macerated together, some others separately, like gentian or diktamo or licorice.

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Talking about the Divino series, how did you deal with the technical issues of non-alcoholic drinks?

We first produce a classic bianco and rosso Vermouth, with wormwood and other mediterranean botanicals with Greek wine. Then a very slow and complex process follows, during which we slowly remove alcohol by the means of reverse osmosis. That way, we manage to keep the original flavor, and all organic volatiles, as despite the removal of alcohol, they are still diluted in organic matter, meaning the grape juices that stem from wine. That's where the name Divino comes from, Di Vino (from wine) and divine, as in "holy" alc free.

What about the difficulties in realizing these products?

Complexity, cost and big challenge as in the absence of alcohol, the flavor and odor, the body and palate of the spirit is completely transparent. Nude. Meaning that without alcohol masking off flavors, or weakness in botanicals/herbs, the 0% product has to be REALLY good to stand out. And we believe we have managed to create the best non-alcoholic vermouths in the market today, that taste and feel like a vermouth, not flat or watery.

Can you tell us about your distillery?

The Callicounis family distillery was founded in 1850 in Kalamata and has been active ever since, for 175 years. It is the oldest distillery in Greece. We started in 2013 there our production, with the help and support from our uncles. As market and demand was growing, we moved our production in 2019, to Greece’s biggest distillery, in Lesbos, owned by Pernod Ricard Hellas. This distillery is where Ouzo mini, and other liqueurs are produced, among others.

As a final question, we would like to know about your vision for the future of Roots.

Our vision is to promote further Roots as a premium liqueur in every household in Greece and a backbar standard in Italy and around the world. Italy has its famous amari and liqueurs in every back bar in the world. Greece has none. Our vision is for Roots to be the first, among more Greek spirits to follow.

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