I don’t travel much, being afraid of places were I don’t speak the language as I am, but my comfort zone was well and truly kicked in 2008 when I ended up in Bulgaria for a friend’s wedding. In standard fashion I used the opportunity to sample the local booze and other than some fairly average beer (I probably didn’t find any of the good stuff due to staying in a posh hotel and keeping away from random bars due to the aforementioned not speaking the language issue) and rather good Rakia my only exposure was the Mastika that I picked up in the airport – Mastika Peshtera.
I’d not encountered the stuff before and even had to look up on Wikipedia what it was before I grabbed a couple of bottles to bring back. After some wrangling with customs in Zurich (during which both bottles were confiscated, due to the Bulgarian airport staff not putting the right date on their tills and thus my receipt, and then carried through the terminal to where I was waiting once the customs guy had, unasked by me, pursued my case for keeping them with his superior. I like Zurich) I finally cracked a bottle when I got home and got my first taste.
It’s a strong, oily, aniseed spirit which is quite overpowering neat, fading quickly from an initial sweetness to a pleasantly bitter aftertaste. Over ice it opens up nicely and tastes like a bitter anise. However, the addition of water in any form leads to a strange reaction – it goes cloudy (expected) and a white solid precipitates out, sticking to the sides of the glass (not quite so expected). This grainy solid is quite worrying at first, but the effects of the drink are quick and your vision soon fades…
Other than the white gunk the most disturbing thing about this Mastika is the hangover it produces. It reminded me somewhat of an absinthe hangover, with everything seeming slightly more real, including the functioning of every organ in your body. Along with that, however, it adds all of the hallmarks of a regular hangover, making the day after significantly more painful than it might have been otherwise.
While doing some firkling on the internet to find out how a) to write Пещера in roman characters and b) anything more about the stuff, I found some of its advertising on YouTube. I’m not sure if this is standard Bulgarian advertising (I was too busy wandering around trying to find military museums to sit and watch TV), but it’s certainly a step on from our usual XXXX ads here in the UK. Warning: Contains sexual themes, a very tiny pair of bikini bottoms, music played on a Casio keyboard and men hiding erections.
I’ve now run out, having finished the second bottle last week (the bottle that I had given to a friend as a present and that he had left behind in his flat when he became my landlord) and I suspect I won’t be going out of my way to get any more. However, if a bottle crosses my path again I may still be tempted to pick it up. I suspect the memory of the hangovers will have faded by then…