Almost every country in the world offers its own local firewater spirit and Cyprus is no different. A drink synonymous with Cypriot culture like commandaria, zivania has been a popular moonshine product on the island for hundreds of years. Some of the earliest historical recollections of zivania date back to the late 18th century when Italian cleric Giovanni Mariti speaks of a drink – during his travels to Cyprus – resembling zivania but which he calls ‘Acquavite’.
Other accounts that could be linked to zivania have been traced as far back as the 15th century. Similar to tsikoudia, arak and grappa, zivania is colourless with a typical alcohol content of around 45% by volume.
Essentially an aperitif, it is commonly served with appetisers that commence a large meal and is a common pairing with meat dishes like lountza and hiromeri. Most tourists visiting the island are usually advised by locals to consume zivania with a non-alcoholic beverage close at hand to wash away the burning sensation.
Distilled from wine mixed with the fermented pomace and served ice cold, it is a pure drink that contains no sugars and has no acidity. Cyprus’ unique climate also offers its special blend to the drink. It is believed that the differentiation between zivania and other alcoholic beverages is related to the unique climatic conditions existing on the island of Cyprus, the methods of production and distillation and the type of grapes which are most commonly Xynisteri or Mavro.
Sunlight duration is very important and acts mainly by controlling the sugar in grapes. The most critical period for quality of the grapes is around the start of ripening. Good conditions ensure an ample reserve of sugar in the grape and flavour and aroma compounds in zivania. The geological history of the island – particularly the island’s variety of rocks and soils – also plays a role in the aroma according to studies by the Department of Chemistry of the University of Cyprus. Zivania is usually stored in clean wooden or galvanised metal containers that can be sealed in order to contain evaporation.
And its history hasn’t always been associated with drinking. Indeed, over the years, zivania has been used to treat wounds, for massaging sore body parts, as a remedy for colds and toothaches or as a warming-up drink during the cold months of winter, especially in the villages of the Troodos mountains. A colonial decree back in 1949 – under which wine producers were not permitted to distribute the drink – sent the production of zivania underground. Thanks to people’s determination to keep the drink alive, zivania was produced domestically in small quantities for private consumption and it continued that way until 1998 when new regulations were enforced. The impact was immediate. Consumption rose from 60,000 litres to 620,000 in less than 10 years. Having overcome obstacles resulting from legislation and taxation throughout the years, its status as the island’s most loved alcoholic drink was further cemented when it received protection under EU regulations in 2004 as a product unique to the island.
You can accompany zivania with any grape products such as soutzouko, with nuts, with a cheese or a cold cuts platter but also with the famous mezedes.