On a cool late summer evening in September I step into a cable car in downtown Athens and head toward the sun. In this case “the sun” is a bright yellow swirl painted at the top of the tunnel leading to Lycabattus Hill, Athens’ highest peak and the site of one of the city’s poshest restaurants.

The cable car is part of a branded experience called Metaxa Rise, which uses lighting effects, video collage and public transportation to tell the story of one of modern Greece’s oldest brands. The installation is also meant to serve as a beacon of light during the country’s protracted economic crisis, according to its creators.

“This project is a great display of optimism and hope,” says Panos Sarantopoulos, CEO of Metaxa, the company that produces 10 million bottles per year of the amber spirit of the same name.

While an ostentatious marketing campaign for a premium spirit may seem out of step with the country’s moment of austerity, Sarantopoulos knows something about staging a comeback. Less than three years ago the now 46-year-old CEO took on a challenge that essentially amounted to a dare: revitalizing a staid Greek brand while Greece itself was steeped in recession. The question Sarantopolous was forced to grapple with is the same one I encounter during a three-day trip to the Mediterranean nation: How much control does any company have over its so-called “brand”?

The Metaxa Rise Project. The sun awaits at the top of the rail ride (left). The rail car (right) sends people to the top of the mountain. Image by Io Paschou, courtesy of Metaxa.

The sun awaits at the top of tunnel of the Metaxa Rise (left). The cable car (right) brings people to the top of Lycabattus Hill in Athens. Image by Io Paschou, courtesy of Metaxa.

The rogue spirit

Founder Spyros Metaxa. Image courtesy of Metaxa.

Founder Spyros Metaxa. Image courtesy of Metaxa.

Metaxa is marketed as “the smoothest amber spirit under the sun,” but the brand’s history has seen its bumps. The company was founded in 1888 by Spyros Metaxa, an aristocratic merchant who combined aged wine distillates with muscat wine, rose petals and other secret herbal ingredients, to create a sweet, floral liqueur.

Metaxa’s elixir was sold as cognac until 1937, when French producers secured the label as a controlled appellation of origin. For the next five decades Metaxa was classified on cocktail menus and Duty Free shelves as a brandy. Then, in 1989, the definition of brandy was changed to exclude spirits that contained anything other than wine distillates; no fresh wine or botanicals allowed. Metaxa’s executives at the time were forced to go rogue, a turn of events that has become part of the brand’s carefully crafted story.

“It’s so much easier to belong to a group,” says Sarantopoulos. “But they decided to blaze their own trail.” During a tour of Metaxa’s headquarters in suburban Athens, Sarantopoulos stops to point out two photos hanging on a wall, one of Anthony Quinn as Aristotle Onassis in The Greek Tycoon and another of Jack Palance as Fidel Castro in Che! Both men are pictured drinking Metaxa. “These people come from completely different social classes,” says Sarantopoulos, referring to the characters, not the actors. “But what do they have in common? These are men who know what they want.”

The same year Metaxa was stripped of its brandy status it was sold to the British alcohol conglomerate Grand Metropolitan (now Diageo) and eventually landed in the hands of Rémy Cointreau. By the time the global financial crisis hit Greece, Metaxa appeared to have lost its shine, seen by most Greeks as the sort of stodgy brandy that grandmothers would cook with or that mourners would serve after a funeral.

“Metaxa is a brand that has suffered a lot,” says Constantine Stergides, an Athens-based wine writer who organizes wine shows throughout the country. “I believe that up to now it was a peripheral brand for huge drinks companies. It’s a powerful brand, but it lost its strategy somewhere along the way.”

Metaxa Five-Star is the most common spirit of the brand. Courtesy of Metaxa.

The Metaxa family of spirits. Image courtesy of Metaxa.

Rebranding in the time of crisis

CEO Panos Sarantopoulos. Image courtesy of Metaxa.

CEO Panos Sarantopoulos. Image courtesy of Metaxa.

In 2011, Sarantopoulos was brought in to right the ship. A veteran of the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and Krug champagne houses, the CEO was given the unenviable task of reviving a Greek heritage brand while the country was making global headlines; throughout the summer, demonstrators filled Athens’ Syntagma square to protest the tax increases and austerity measures the government enacted in response to the debt crisis.

Meanwhile, the alcohol industry was hit with a 10 percent increase in the Value Added Tax, along with a special consumption tax, which grew 125 percent between 2009 and 2012. A bottle of Metaxa 5-Star (the company’s base product) that retailed for €11 in 2010 cost more than €15 a year later. According to the Greek Reporter, the taxes, which combined accounted for 57 percent of the retail price of spirits in 2012, resulted in a decline of alcohol consumption from roughly 284 million gallons in the first half of 2009 to 148 million gallons in the first half of 2012.

Huity

Huity Konstantinidou, Metaxa’s senior international brand manager. Image courtesy of Metaxa.

“I don’t think anybody considered consumption would decrease so much,” says Huity Konstantinidou, Metaxa’s senior international brand manager. “The state basically destroyed the industry.” On my first night in Greece, Konstantinidou brings us to a restaurant in Glyfada, a beachside suburb 20 minutes south of Athens. The restaurant is called Tsi Tsi and exemplifies a new wave of eateries that serve Greek comfort food in hip settings at affordable prices. Lanterns made out of woven baskets hang from a high wooden ceiling. Hand-cut fries and heaping souvlaki pitas are served in giant metal grain scoops. One online reviewer calls it “the first souvlaki place with valet parking.” Elis Kiss, a local journalist, ironically refers to these booming post-recession businesses as “souvlakeries” (pronounced with a French accent; apparently some line their pitas with Béarnaise sauce instead of tzatziki). “A few years ago it was all sushi,” says Konstantinidou. “Greeks love going out – now they just do it less, and spend less.”

After dinner we walk over to a bar called Pere Ubu where the patrons are all young, attractive and seemingly recession-proof. Konstantinidou orders a round of cocktails – Metaxa 5-Star mixed with various combinations of passionfruit, coriander, lime, ginger, cucumber and marmalade – served in Mason jars. It’s exactly the sort of scene the brand is trying to cultivate in trendy bars from Seattle to Sofia to Shanghai.

“Greece is our passport”

Spirits are unique in the branding world. No other consumer product is tied so closely to its place of origin (with the possible exception of food, which doesn’t travel as well). When you think tequila, you think Mexico. When you think vodka, you think Russia. Most people know ouzo as Greece’s national libation, but Metaxa has long been the go-to Greek spirit for Duty Free shoppers seeking to bring home a piece of the country; Metaxa is all over the Athens airport, starting with the luggage carts outside the terminal.

Still, Metaxa seems to have an ambivalent relationship with its national provenance. Although the company’s slogan is “The Original Greek Spirit” and its logo features a Salamina warrior ready to take on the ancient Persians, Metaxa’s CEO plays down the association between Brand Metaxa and Brand Greece. “Greece is our passport, it’s not our DNA,” Sarantopoulos says.

Sarantopoulos, who started his career in sales at Hennessy cognac, is fluent in marketing-speak. He peppers his conversation with canned phrases like “smooth living,” “unique aromatic intensity” and “celebrating the joy and optimism of the sun.” But he gets cagey when you drop the word “brand,” insisting on referring to Metaxa as a “house.” In response to my question about “Brand Greece,” he asks, “How is it conceivable to reduce the past, present and future, the country, its people and their lives into the term ‘brand’?”

Although we’re in the age of “nation branding,” “personal branding” and even “scent branding,” something about the word “brand” seems to make some people uncomfortable, even (and perhaps especially) marketing people; imagine a sex educator who refuses to use the word “sex,” or a pastor who blanches every time you talk about god. Maybe it’s a Greek thing. Stergides, the wine writer, says that Greece has always lagged behind its Mediterranean counterparts when it comes to promoting its brand internationally. “Greece as a country doesn’t have a clear image of itself,” he says. “The clichés are not as clear-cut as Italy or France or Spain and have not been exploited” by the government or industry. (He references a talk by South African advertising executive Peter Economides who calls Greece “one of the greatest brands that’s never been branded.”) But Stergides says there seems to be a “solidarity movement” of consumers, especially members of the Greek diaspora, buying Greek products to help the country through its crisis. “There are a lot of hellenophiles out there,” he says.

On the other hand, there are also those – particularly in Europe – who resent Greece’s role in the continent’s ongoing hardships. “Some people say, ‘We’ve done enough for Greece,’” Sarantopoulos tells me on the tour. “Then I pour them a glass and another and soon they’re buying a bottle. If they like it, they don’t care where it’s from.”

Metaxa's urban beach project in Berlin. Image courtesy of Metaxa.

Metaxa’s urban beach in Berlin. Image courtesy of Metaxa.

Capturing the sun

When Sarantopoulos took the reins of Metaxa in 2011 he zeroed in on two elements that set the spirit apart: its compelling story and its distinctive taste. Metaxa’s story revolves around the sun, which is represented in the product’s yellow-gold packaging as well as a series of branded experiences Sarantopoulos and Konstantinidou have launched in the past few years. In addition to Metaxa Rise on Lycabattus Hill – the sun at the apex of the cable car lift symbolizes Metaxa’s mission to “capture the sun” – there’s Metaxa Bay, an urban beach in Berlin speckled with bright yellow lounge chairs as well as similar pop-up experiences around the world.

At the heart of Metaxa lore is Samos, a lush Aegean island less than two kilometres from the coast of Turkey, whose ample sunlight nourishes the grapes that lend the spirit its body. That’s where I’m flown on my second day in Greece for a 24-hour agronomy lesson – and first-hand look at the brand’s prettiest and most powerful marketing platform. Here’s what I learn: Muscat grapes are cultivated on the slopes of Mount Ambelos, buttressed by hand-built stone terraces known as pezulas that prevent Samos’ rocky soil from washing away. The grapes grow from sea level up to more than 800 metres; the higher the altitude – and closer to the sun – the sweeter the grape.

Samos’ vineyards are almost all family-owned and relatively tiny (any property more than a hectare is considered large). The steepness of the terroir makes irrigation and mechanization extremely difficult, and both are restricted by the grower’s cooperative that regulates the production and sale of all Samos wine. Considering the global craze over organic, fair trade and artisanal agriculture (the list of buzzwords goes on), it’s easy to see why Sarantopoulos seized on Samos, whose vineyards he calls “hidden treasures,” as Metaxa’s ultimate brand asset.

The vineyards of Samos. Image courtesy of Metaxa.

The vineyards of Samos. Image courtesy of Metaxa.

Meeting the Metaxa Master

Costas Raptis. Image by Metaxa.

Metaxa Master Costas Raptis. Image by Metaxa.

If Samos is the heart of the Metaxa story, the brand’s cellars in Kifisia, a quiet suburb 20 minutes north of Athens, are its brain. That’s where Costas Raptis, the current guardian of Spyros Metaxa’s secret recipe, plies his craft.

Raptis is the fifth Metaxa Master in history, a title he’s held for 27 years. He meets us in the bowels of the distillery wearing a sleek dark suit and resembling a more refined, silver-haired version of the actor Billy Bob Thornton. A former chemist, Raptis is a combination of master blender, cellar master, oenologist and perfume maker, a one-of-a-kind skill set that Metaxa’s ingredient list of oak-aged distillates, muscat wine, rose petals and other locally sourced botanicals requires of him.

Flanked by Sarantopoulos and Konstantinidou, Raptis walks us through several rooms stacked with French limousine oak casks, the vessel of choice for aging brandy. He pauses at an 80-year-old barrel that’s named after Metaxa’s eponymous founder, who died in 1909. A special blend drawn from the cask was released in 2008 to celebrate the brand’s 120th anniversary. At the end of the tour, we’re treated to a small glass of the blend, which is sold as Metaxa Aen, meaning “forever.” It tastes rich and earthy, like ancient figs or Manuka honey, as a wine writer in the room points out. Sarantopoulos says its warmth and aroma remind him of stepping into a Greek Orthodox church. Raptis says he’d prefer to let the spirit speak for itself.

After the tour, we’re told to brace ourselves for one last “surprise,” which turns out to be the Metaxa Rise cable car experience, followed by dinner at Orizontes, a pricey restaurant atop Lycabattus Hill. The view from our outdoor table is stunning – a panorama of Athens, with the original Olympic Stadium, the parliament building and the Acropolis in clear sight. The meal begins with a round of Metaxa “sun tonics,” a clever brand invention whereby the spirit is served in a lit-up, translucent orb that rests on the rim of an ice-filled glass, glowing like – what else? – the sun.

Before pouring the amber liquid into my glass, I look down at the Parthenon lit up below us. It’s a reassuring sight, a reminder that, as bad as things may get, in the grand sweep of time we’re all just shooting stars.

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