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Greek Ouzo is, quite simply, one of the finest drinks on earth, a hidden gem produced in over 180 distilleries across Greece. Most people have heard of Greek Ouzo, and may even have tried it whilst on vacation, but few realise the subtle complexities and variations that define the national drink of Greece.
Greek Ouzo is more than a beverage: To the Greeks it is a symbol of their national pride and fierce independence, much like the symbolism behind Scottish whisky or the French love affair with wine. Greek Ouzo, relatively speaking, is a fairly young drink, but its predecessor Tsiporou has existed for as long as the art of distilling.
The History of Greek Ouzo
The origins of this anise-flavoured spirit are unclear, but it is suspected that Greek Ouzo is a descendent of Tsiporou, a spirit distilled from the left-over mash after winemaking. It is commonly believed that the drink evolved in Mount Athos, a peninsula of Greece that is home to a large number of Greek Orthodox monasteries. This peninsula was famed for the quality of its Tsiporou, and the variant flavoured with anise became known as Ouzo.
Whatever the origin, the art has been refined over time, and a huge number of distilleries across Greece make their own version, each one subtly different from the rest. The recipes responsible for this diversity of tastes are jealously guarded, passed down through the family as valued heirlooms.
The Ouzo making industry exploded in the 19th century, after Greece threw off the shackles of Ottoman rule and fought for independence. Greek Ouzo became a symbol of Greece, and the distillers refined their art, influenced by the strong Russian presence in the region.
What Gives Greek Ouzo Its Flavour
The one component linking all Greek Ouzo is anise, which gives it the distinctive aniseed taste. The oils extracted from the anise also emulsify in water, causing Ouzo to turn white and opaque when water is added. The variation in the flavours across the more than 400 brands is due partly to the water in the local area, but also the blend of herbs and spices used. Greece, whilst a small country, has a number of geographically distinct locations, each possessing its own discrete ecosystem and herbs. Some of the ingredients that give Greek Ouzo its distinct flavour, apart from the anise, are; cloves, cinnamon, coriander, mace, star anise, fennel, salt, mastic from the island of Chios (Cioς), mint, liquorice, fennel, wintergreen, hazelnut, angelica root, cinnamon, lime blossom and a host of other secret ingredients
Regional Greek Ouzo
Lesbos (Lesboς), also called Mytilini (Mutilhnh), is regarded as the home of the finest Ouzo, and is home to such leading brands as BarbaYanni (Barbagianni) and Plomari (Plwmari). Lesbos claims to be the inventor of Ouzo, which is highly disputed, but there is no doubt that the island of Sappho produces the finest and smoothest drink. Here, the best aniseed is grown, and the flavoursome seeds are separated from the rest of the plant by hand and stored under carefully controlled conditions.
Greek Ouzo Production
Whatever the type of Ouzo, it all begins life as 96% alcohol by volume (ABV) distillate from an agricultural source, usually from wine or raisins, distilled in copper stills. It must have at least 0.05% of added antheole, a natural essential oil derived from anise, giving it a unique flavour, and the other herbs, spices and flavourings are added. This flavoured alcohol is known as Ouzo yeast, (Magia Ouzou / Magia Ouzou),although there is actually no yeast or fermentation of the product. Some producers then add ethyl alcohol from other sources to this mix, and add water to ensure that the entire drink is at least 37.5% ABV. Greek law stipulates that Ouzo only needs to have 20% of the final alcohol derived from the Ouzo yeast, but the finest brands do not add anything other than a little sugar, and the difference in taste is easily apparent, smooth and refined. Of course, the purest Greek Ouzo’s are more expensive, but the extra price is worth paying.
The beauty of Ouzo is that it does not require multiple distillations, although the best producers do use a process of distillation and refining. BarbaYanni, for example, triple distils the initial ethanol, concentrating the intensity of the flavour. After the first distillation, only the middle fraction is retained and this is distilled twice more, slowly and carefully.
How to Drink Greek Ouzo
Ouzo can be drunk neat, although the Greeks believe that this is the height of insanity and they always add water and ice. Likewise, some non-Greeks may have encountered the fashion of mixing orange juice or cola in their Ouzo, a huge faux-pas and breach of Greek Ouzo etiquette in a Greek taverna. Ouzo is best drunk as an aperitif, slowly sipped with seafood mezedes or grilled octopus. The idea is to keep topping the Ouzo up with water and savour over the course of a long and lazy afternoon in the sun. Of course, the best part of the Ouzo experience is the company, and the drink loosens the tongue and acts as a catalyst for a relaxed conversation.
To enjoy the perfect Greek Ouzo, pour two fingers into a glass and add a little water, before plunking 3 ice cubes. Never add the ice before the water, because this will make the Ouzo crystallize and look ‘stringy’ rather than opaque.
Greek Ouzo - The Medicine
Amongst Greeks, Ouzo is called the medicine - To Farmako - because it is believed to convey many medicinal benefits. Of course, it is an excuse used by Greek men to enjoy a drink without getting into much trouble with their wife, usually to no avail.
Some Greek Ouzo Brands
BarbaYanni is by far the finest commercial Ouzo in Greece, combining smoothness and liquorice sweetness with a wonderful spicy warmth and a final exhilarating kick. The blue label is the standard type, at 40%, but 42% green label is wonderful stuff. If you can find it, the Aphrodite brand is 48% of slow and delightful stupor.
Plomari Ouzo is rapidly becoming a market leader in Greece, using a triple distillation process and a unique blend of herbs. The resulting Ouzo is light and sweet, with a wonderful bitterness from the fennel. The website has a great section about the sacred Greek code for drinking Ouzo.
12 Ouzo (Dodeca / Dwdeka) is an Ouzo that you either love or you hate, and is the world’s bestselling brand. It is designed much more with the tourist market in mind than the other Ouzos, and is much sweeter. Personally, I prefer BarbaYanni or Plomari, but 12 is certainly a nice drink and it is widely available worldwide.
Links about Greece
- Freelance Writer Editor | Martyn Shuttleworth | Greece
Freelance writer editor is my personal site, with more information about Greece. If you need a professional freelance writer to create unique travel and food articles, please feel free to visit.
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