Tony Chvala: spreading the word

27 July, 2023

When the producers of a new mastiha brand wanted to get the word out to the right people, they called on a man with a history of doing just that – only he hadn’t worked in drinks before.

Mastiha is a traditional Greek sweet liqueur, usually drunk as a digestif, flavoured with the resin from mastic trees grown on the island of Chios. It’s the kind of drink you fall in love with on holiday and take a bottle home which then sits, untouched, for years, too sweet and too specific to enter the repertoire.

But Axia isn’t that. Sure, it’s a mastiha, distilled with mastic resin from south Chios, but where traditional liquids are sweet, Axia is an extra-dry spirit, like gin.

“If you look at other mastihas on the market today, the way they’re made, sugar is added into the process,” explains Axia chief executive Tony Chvala. “Sugar can hide a lot of impurities. What makes Axia so innovative is we’re really utilising water, alcohol and the mastiha crystal itself, extracting everything from the mastiha and producing something purer with a higher abv. That’s what makes it so interesting and so different from a traditional mastiha.”

Axia was created by a pair of innovators with real industry heritage – Adrian Clarke, a seventh-generation member of the Bacardi family, and fifth-generation ouzo distiller Nikos Kalogiannis – but when the time came to begin growing the brand, they wanted someone with a fresh perspective on the industry.

“Early on, I said to Adrian, ‘you do understand I have zero spirits experience before this?’. And he said, ‘exactly, however, you have a track record of building brands and that’s what we need. We don’t need a 20-year veteran telling me this can’t be done’,” says Chvala.

“What I’ve done is build brands, that’s kind of my speciality, both on the marketing side and the operational side. Before Axia, I was at Amazon where I started Amazon Basics back in 2010. After that, I went to Groupon, where I started up Groupon Goods business. After that, I started working for different private equity firms that bought specific companies and would either set them up for sale over a couple of years or build them up.

“The last company that I did prior to Axia was a company called 4ocean, with the premise that you buy a bracelet for $20 and we remove a pound of plastic out of the ocean. It went viral. In less than two years, we had two million followers on Instagram, we went from zero to over $100m in sales. That’s what taught me that you have to believe in whatever you’re selling, you have to be authentic. And I live by that principle.”

High-end audience

Axia has so far found its audience in the high-end bar world, a strategy that was there from the beginning.

“When they were developing the product through the lockdowns, Adrian brought in mixologists to help rein in the right taste. The best way to introduce people [to a new category] is through the best mixologists and the best bars in the world. People in the trade look up to these people so if they’re enjoying your liquid and experimenting with it, it spreads. That’s what we’re seeing now.

“You don’t typically find mastiha on a menu in The Clumsies or Soma in the UK. That’s why it's so important for us to be there. That’s not us putting it on those menus, mixologists have to believe in the liquid and what they’re making. That reinforces the authenticity of the brand.”

Axia has now been on the market for two years in Greece, the UK and the US, specifically Florida, and is an increasingly common sight on back bars, but Chvala isn’t in any hurry for world domination.

“For the next 12 to 24 months, we are going to remain laserfocused on our current geographies. A lot of people ask me, ‘Tony, why aren’t you going into New York? Or South America?’ I feel like that’s a distraction. You need to get the run rate of the brand to a certain point. That's why we specifically hit the UK, it's representative of the rest of the world. If you make it there, you can plant it anywhere. Then, the US is the biggest market and in Greece we have provenance, so we have to own that.

“I look at a pyramid. At the top, you've got the best bars in the world, a notch below that, there are some higher-end restaurants. The third tier is the chains, like The Botanist in the UK or The Real Greek, that’s where we’re working now, and that’s where we are starting to spread the brand to the masses. When we get the brand awareness to be really solid, we can make strategic decisions on how we expand.”

Digital Edition

Drinks International digital edition is available ahead of the printed magazine. Don’t miss out, make sure you subscribe today to access the digital edition and all archived editions of Drinks International as part of your subscription.


La'Mel Clarke

Service isn’t servitude: the skill of hosting

La’Mel Clarke, front of house at London’s Seed Library, looks at the forgotten art of hosting and why it deserves the same respect as bartending.