Women We’re Watching: Effie Panagopoulos of Kleos
Bostonian Effie Panagopoulos is the Greek girlboss behind Kleos—a luxury spirit brand crafted from the ancient Greek superfood Mastiha (also known as the “diamond of spices”). While Kleos was once merely a pipe dream inspired by a fateful outing at a Mykonos beach bar, you can now spot the signature evil eye bottle at bars all around Boston, New York and Miami, some with catchy cocktail names like “The Kleopatra” (Saloniki Greek) and “Get Him to the Greek” (formerly at Lion’s Tale). Seeing her product on the back bar means the world to Effie, as the tireless years she spent trying to get Kleos off the ground are finally paying off. But don’t be fooled—this fiery woman is only just getting started.
Effie’s commitment to “earning her kleos” by following her calling even when the odds were stacked against her, passion for philanthropy and fact that she’s the first Greek woman in history to launch her own liquor brand make her a woman we’re watching (and we can cheers to that)!
Tell us about how Kleos was born, and how you first came up with the idea.
It’s a long story; it was a nine-year process with a lot of ups and downs. It all started in 2008 when I was in Mykonos at a beach bar and everyone was taking shots of Mastiha. That was my “eureka!” moment. I turned to my friend and said, “Wait a minute, this is like that stuff we had when we were kids!” and he said, “That’s exactly what it is.” He was referring to a beloved childhood Greek dessert made from Mastiha.
I couldn’t believe it! It brought me back to when I was five yeas old in the village with my grandmother. My friend looked at me and said, “You need to bring this to the U.S.” So I decided to go at it on my own.
I typically drink spirits neat, and a lot of women drink vodka soda—which in all honesty is kind of boring—so Kleos offers a healthy alternative with a really unique flavor.
Mastiha is actually an age-old Greek medicinal superfood. Talk to me about the benefits and why you chose to use that as the star ingredient in Kleos.
Mastiha is a P.D.O, a Protected Designation of Origin ingredient, protected by the EU. It comes from trees grown in only 24 villages in the Southern part of the island of Chios, and produces an aromatic sap with healing properties.
There have been more than 20 studies showing that it kills h. pylori, the bacteria that causes acid reflux and GI problems. It’s also been used as a natural remedy for IBS, crohn’s disease, and to help lower bad cholesterol. In the EU, it’s actually used for bandages and to make surgical threads because the body can absorb it!
It’s a cure-all, do-all, and in liquor form, it’s been around since ancient times, the sap itself being used as the world’s first chewing gum. It’s kind of like the “Limoncello” of Greece. And while many drink chilled shots of it, I wanted to make it an arsenal for mixology: a cool new cocktail ingredient opening up a whole new world of opportunities.
How did you bring your brand to life, and get to the point where you were ready to launch?
After an investor deal fell through, I was back to the drawing board trying to raise money in New York, while also investing my own money for the branding, bottle shape and formula. I ended up not making it in New York, so I had to go back to get a corporate job and shelved things for a bit.
By the time I went to resurrect the brand, I was in search of a distillery but there aren’t a lot of distilleries in Greece. I eventually ended up finding my “Golden Goose,” and connecting with a large distillery in Greece that does small-batch production, which produces a higher quality. The distiller we work with, Maroussa, is the first female distiller in Greece, and she’s such an amazing partner to have. She cares about my brand as much as I do, and she has no ego.
Ironically enough, we make our product in Lesvos. We’re also working with Patricia Field [the costume designer behind Sex and the City] who is half Greek and her mom is from Lesvos, which brings everything together full circle. We’re targeting women with my brand, so I’m hoping that being a female-founded brand makes it aspirational! I want it to be the new-age Cosmopolitan.
Was entrepreneurship always in your blood growing up? Did you know you wanted to work for yourself from the get-go?
Entrepreneurialism is in Greek blood for sure. Greeks are typically anti-establishment, anti-authority and fiercely independent people. They’re also the most successful immigrant group in the U.S.
Growing up, I studied foreign languages and actually had a dream of being a U.N. ambassador. With Kleos, I’m trying to put Greece back on the map, but in the world of spirits! I’m the only Greek product on the back bar, and it’s been awesome seeing the bars in Boston coming up with cool cocktail names, like “Get Him to the Greek” at Lion’s Tale.
What’s the behind-the-scenes process like in creating Kleos—from tree to bottle?
The farming process is done separately from me, but I have become friends with tons of our farmers over the years. There are videos of our cultivation process on the website!
We tested 17 formulas before landing on the juice that goes in my bottle! I continuously tested with bartenders because I wanted Kleos to be optimal as a cocktail ingredient and balanced enough to drink on the rocks with squeeze of lemon. I wanted a product that wasn’t going to get ripped apart by high-level bartenders, as they can be ruthless. This is my child, and I want to hang my hat on it. That process took about four years, and the packaging itself took about five years; it was a lot of trial and error.
I love that there’s a story behind the name and the “earn your kleos” mentality. Can you explain what that means to you and the message you are trying to spread?
I wanted to pick a name that was easy to pronounce for Americans, but with a deeper meaning [in alignment with] the brand and ethos. It also had to be a cocktail name, so it was not an easy feat. I studied ancient Greek in high school, and my mom would send me list of words from an old book. I finally narrowed it down to 20, and Kleos was ding ding ding!
The word was first found in ancient Greek in Homer’s the Iliad, an epic tale about the Trojan War. Achilles asks his mom what he has to do to earn his kleos, and she said he was to go out and fight. Kleos means “eternal fame or glory,” the deeper meaning earned through good deeds and hard work. It’s being the “good guy.”
I’m trying to earn my country’s kleos to make Greece relevant again, and my purpose goes so much deeper than making a ton of money. I want to be financially free so I can do philanthropic work, help kids and help motivate other people to attain the unattainable. I’m in it for the long haul. We’re in a generation nowadays where it’s get rich quick and make a lot of money doing nothing, and I don’t subscribe to that ethos.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve come across in starting your brand or something you would have done differently?
One thing would have been the trademarks when starting off. I had only trademarked the brand name Kleos and I didn’t trademark the logo, because it’s an evil eye and I didn’t think I could since it’s a common symbol.
I ended up meeting with some other Greeks in Miami trying to start a Mastiha brand as well. They also had an evil eye on their bottle, and they threatened to sue me. I thought, “I’m not changing sh*t.” I had copywrite priority because my designs were created well before they had their trademark. After that, I went nuts on my trademarketing; I trademarked the bottle shape, evil eye and the word mark for Kleos. I spent a lot of money on it, but it was worth it because it really tightened up my intellectual property.
You’ve had some incredible wins so far. You’re the first Greek woman in history to start her own liquor brand, and you’re in collaboration with Sex and the City designer Patricia Field. What’s been your proudest moment thus far?
My proudest moment was my first publication… and it was in Vogue. The writer has known me for a very long time and knows my journey. She ended up writing this piece, literally crediting me for being the person who brought Mastiha to the U.S., carrying it around in vials to turn bartenders onto it. This is all true, but I never got that credit before. I was extremely emotional when the article came out, and cried all day.
My second proudest moment was the day I did my cocktail development. I have about 20 cocktail recipes on the website, and I basically held myself up in a bar with two bartender friends in Miami to perfect them. We just played with recipes all day and kept nailing it, taking old-school classics like a margarita and making them new with Kleos in them. I was just so happy because it was like, “Yes, it works!” Kleos mixes with everything, it’s so easy to work with, and it can be used as the “olive oil” for your back bar. I like to think of it as the next Saint Germaine.
How does wellness play a role in your every day life, and what does it look like for you?
I lift weights six days a week, and competed in a natural bodybuilding competition before I got Kleos off the ground. I did it before I got my capital raised in order to get disciplined. I was in the zone waking up at 4 a.m., meditating three times a day, and I was super productive. After I competed in the show, I was like “No excuses!” I was able to achieve goals from a physical health perspective, and able to raise my funding goals as well.
Physical health is supremely important to day-to-day wellbeing and functioning at the highest level possible; the gym is my coffee. I also practice a lot of visualization when working out. Another rep or another 30-second sprint is a step closer to another investor. I’ll set big meetings I have right after a workout so I know I’m in a really high state of mind. Working out is such an endorphin rush for me!
What’s your number one advice to other female entrepreneurs trying to make a go to “earn their kleos”?
It’s super cliché, but don’t give up, and be very loud about what you’re trying to do. If I had not been going around with a vial in my pocket or had that snafu with the trademark, I wouldn’t be where I am today. It took me nine years to get this thing off the ground, and it came to the point where I thought, “If I don’t make this happen it’ll be written on my tombstone.” A lot of us keep our dreams hidden, and we’re afraid to talk about them. I was so loud about it that I was almost ashamed if I didn’t make it happen. Every obstacle the universe was testing how bad I really wanted it, and those tests continued. Earning your kleos doesn’t come easily.
Start taking little action steps… baby steps create that positive flow of energy and things become more real. If I had the money in my early 30s to hire a life coach, I would have done it. Heck, if I had the money now I would! It’s about having accountability… to yourself, your friends, your family. I really felt on this journey the universe was holding me accountable, and I have never felt so strongly in my life. Making Kleos happen was my destiny and I had to honor it.