On top of Lycabettus Hill, Metaxa rises again

Imagine savoring a quintessential Greek spirit mixed with chilled tonic water on top of a hill offering a spectacular panorama of the city of Athens. The spirit is Metaxa, the location is Lycabettus and the experience, “Metaxa Rise,” is a visual arts project aimed at reintroducing a household name to local and global audiences.

Almost everyone has a Metaxa story to share in this country, although some of these can be dusty. Enter “Metaxa Rise,” one of many fresh ideas introduced by the company in the last few years. At the point of departure, Lycabettus Hill’s cable car entrance, the journey begins with a rendition of the absolute roots of Metaxa – the vineyards and the cellars – before moving to the spirit’s aromas and flavors. Through the use of video, collage and lighting effects, the voyage into the world that Metaxa CEO Panos Sarantopoulos defines as “the smoothest amber spirit under the sun” culminates with a figurative representation of the sun by way of anamorphosis, where an image can only be viewed fully from one specific point of observation.

A creative group comprising designers Jeff van Dyck and Alice Pesche, film director Tassos Boulmetis and artist Katerina Vagia was given access to the company’s archives to draw inspiration and develop “Metaxa Rise.”

“Athens is a city which is going through its crisis courageously,” said Sarantopoulos, standing in the Orizontes restaurant atop Lycabettus, where patrons can enjoy Metaxa in cocktail form or opt for the house’s more exclusive flavors. For the 44-year-old company head, picking Lycabettus Hill for the “Metaxa Rise” experience was also about providing the Greek capital with a touch of optimism, while sharing its beauty. “How many times do you have a view of time?” he asked.

Time for Metaxa means going back to 1888, the year it was founded by maverick Spyros Metaxas, a merchant of colonial goods. Metaxas also sold spirits as part of his trade and sought to experiment with cognacs, double-distilled wines and spirits aged in oak barrels. His own breakthrough moment came when he combined the distillate with muscat wine, resulting in Metaxa.

By the late 19th century, the Greek spirit’s fame had spread across the eastern Mediterranean region, in cosmopolitan cities such as Alexandria, Smyrna, Beirut and Istanbul, where it was commercialized as “cognac,” before heading up to Central European markets. In 1937, when the French region of Cognac defined the name as a controlled appellation of origin to differentiate the spirit produced there – which would continue under the cognac label – from the rest – which were to be known as brandy – Metaxa took on the latter appellation.

The risk-taking spirit of the house continued through the decades. In 1989 a European convention about the name brandy decided that only spirits exclusively made of distillates could be described thus. For Metaxa, whose spirits also included wines and rose extracts, the dilemma didn’t last long as the company’s management decided to keep its secret recipe intact and go solo.

At the end of the 2000s, Metaxa, now part of France’s Remy Cointreau, found itself in a rough patch, courtesy of the credit crunch affecting global markets. Sarantopoulos entered the picture in 2011.

“‘What is your outlook for Metaxa?’ I asked them. ‘The sky’s the limit,’ they said,” noted Sarantopoulos, for whom the key to his new mission lay in the notion of a “house” as opposed to that of a “brand.”

“‘House? Brand? What is the difference?’ you might ask. There is a world of difference,” he said. “A house is a home, a family, it’s made up of people, people whose first thought in the morning is Metaxa, not a portfolio of 20 different or more or less similar drinks.”

An Athens-born manager with extensive experience in the world of spirits, including a successful 16-year stint at luxury group LVMH Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton, Sarantopoulos joined Hennessy cognac before moving to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. At the age of 38 he became the first president of champagne house Krug with no ties to the family.

At the helm of Metaxa, Sarantopoulos soon discovered its DNA and savoir-faire. He traveled to the vineyards of muscat wine on the islands of Lemnos and Samos, “real gems and little-known around the world,” as he puts it, all tended by hand. He also observed the multifaceted talents of low-profile Costas Raptis, the in-house winemaker and cellar master (in terms of blending) who uses rose petals and herbs in order to give the Metaxa gamut its signature flavors.

From Metaxa 5 Stars to the house’s AEN Metaxa – the latter featuring over 200 blends left to age for up to 80 years – the Metaxa team’s efforts translate into the production of 10 million bottles annually, with 80 percent exported to about 60 countries. While topping sales in its country of origin – it is the top local spirit and second-most popular spirit in sales in terms of volume in Greece – Metaxa is also a top imported spirit in Germany, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. It is gaining fans in Russia, while strong positions – for Metaxa standards – are being observed in the US, Australia and Canada.

From the vineyards to consumption, via bottle-making and packaging, the house of Metaxa currently provides work for about 6,000 people – though not everyone is directly employed by the company.

For those with no immediate plans to visit Lycabettus – where “Metaxa Rise” will remain on display until next spring – the company has come up with alternatives: In Berlin, not far from the Bundestag and for a third time, the house has created Metaxa Bay, a popular spot among people getting together after work, on the bank of the River Spree. Smaller projects, known as Metaxa Islands, also exist in other cities, while upcoming pop-up Metaxa apres-ski kiosks are being planned in resorts in the Alps.

Back in the cellars at Kifissia, northern Athens, two photos hang on the wall: There’s Anthony Quinn as Aristotle Onassis in the 1978 biopic “The Greek Tycoon” and Jack Palance in the role of Fidel Castro in 1969’s “Che!”

“These two people couldn’t be more different – with a bottle of Metaxa in their hand. What do they have in common? They both know what they are after. They want very different things, but they both know what they want,” said Sarantopoulos.

If Metaxa is the spirit that cuts across social class and origin, could the house’s rejuvenation in the global environment lie in mass-produced Metaxa bottled cocktails, for instance? “Anything we do will have to resonate with the DNA of what Metaxa is,” said Sarantopoulos. “We are very small, there is still room to grow, but let’s not get carried away by delusions of grandeur. It’s about facing up to the crisis that has put us in a tough situation and being able to bring forward to the world the gem that Metaxa is.”

For Sarantopoulos, it’s bound to be a little bit more than that: Growing up playing soccer with friends not far from the Kifissia cellars, re-energizing the house of Metaxa is something of a personal bet.

“There is a sense of quiet defiance in Metaxa, not bravado,” he noted. “The world is looking for interesting stories, for a fighting spirit, for an unexpected maverick that goes against the current. And in many ways, Metaxa fits that bill today.”

[Kathimerini English Edition]