As an old Greek saying goes, ouzo makes the spirit.
For many people, ouzo is the first drink that introduces them to the wonderful drinking culture of Greece. For Greeks, it’s their national drink and one that is firmly part of their culture. You might have seen the infamous drinking scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where the protagonist’s decidedly non-Greek in-laws get drunk on a few shots of warm ouzo. As a traveler, no trip in Greece is complete without ordering a glass of ouzo, preferably alongside a platter of mezes, which is sort of like Greek tapas, at an ouzeri, kafenia, or mezedopoleio.
But what is this Greek liquor and how did it become so popular? Let’s deep dive into what makes this Greek liquor so special — and so darn refreshing.
What is ouzo?
Ouzo is aniseed-flavored liquor made from the by-product of grapes that have been used for winemaking. It’s then put into a distillation process to create a highly alcoholic drink, which is then flavored with anise, an abundant spice in Greece.
What does ouzo taste like? The aniseed makes the drink slightly sweet, as it touches your tongue, but develops into a full-bodied aftertaste as it goes down your throat. If you like absinthe or liquorice, you’ll like ouzo, too. As with anise-flavored liquors, the crystal-clear liquor turns milky when mixed with water. This process is called louching, but is probably more commonly known as the ouzo effect. In turn, water dilutes the taste of ouzo.
What does ouzo smell like? The ouzo has a particularly distinctive smell that’s similar to many anise-flavored liquors. When drinking ouzo, it’s actually customary to put the glass first under your nose to get a whiff of its strong anise scent before drinking. Of course, you may also smell a hint of fennel, mint, coriander, Greek mastic, or eucalyptus, if the ouzo is also infused with other spices, preferably those that come from Greece.
How to drink ouzo?
Firstly, this Greek liquor is served in a skinny tall glass called kanoakia that resembles a highball glass.
An important rule of thumb is to never put this Greek liquor in the fridge. Some purists also wouldn’t want you to add water to it, because it will dilute the taste. Instead, add an ice cube or two — not more — and drink it cold. Funnily enough, people in Lesbos, where most of the ouzo distilleries are located in, think that the right way to drink ouzo is by diluting it just a tiny bit with cold water. This releases the herbs and other flavors, they say. But they don’t like to add ice. It’s the cause of head-splitting hangovers, according to Lesbos locals.
As for other mixers, if you’re traveling in Greece and don’t want to experience the ire of people who have been drinking this Greek liquor all their lives, then don’t add anything but the ice cubes. But since we’re in an era of experimentation, some trendy bars around the world serving ouzo have been mixing the Greek liquor with lemon juice and honey to make ouzo lemonade.
Of course, this Greek liquor is also the perfect summer drink, preferably taken during a sunny late afternoon after work, or early evening during happy hour. For many Greeks, ouzo is synonymous with either relaxation or celebration. Drinking this Greek liquor is a moment to unwind.
Please don’t do ouzo shots, as it defeats the purpose of drinking it slowly and savoring its taste!
And finally, this Greek liquor is best drunk, alongside a platter of Greek meze, like fried octopus or roasted eggplant. If you’re in Greece, please don’t drink it alongside traditional Greek entrées, or the locals will scowl at you, because it doesn’t go with the food. It also doesn’t go with main dishes, or after dessert.
Origins of the Greek liquor
In 1856, Nicholas Katsaros opened the first ever ouzo distillery, which remains in operation after over 164 years. But this liquor has its origins in the island of Lesbos located next to the north Aegean Sea, and more specifically in the village of Ploumari. Today, Lesbos has over 50% of Greece’s total ouzo production.
Since 2006, the Greek government ruled that true ouzo can only be made in Greece and Macedonia, and consequently received a Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) certificate from the European Union. Even within Greece, only a handful of regions can produce the Greek liquor.
As for the origins of the name? No one’s entirely sure, but there are 3 ideas. There’s a story that claims its roots from the Italian expression Uso Massalia, which means the use of Marseille. As one of the first places to import premium Greek silk, the crates shipped from Greece to Marseille were labeled Uso Massalia. Word has it that, one day, someone was drinking this liquor flavored with anise and found it so delicious that the person exclaimed uso Massalia!
Another idea is that the word ouzo stems from the ancient Greek word ózó, which means smell, due to the Greek liquor’s distinctive aroma. Finally, it might have alsco come from the Turkish word uzum, which means grape, as ouzo is a spirit made from grapes. But if you’re like me, then you’d probably prefer to believe the first story.
Where should you drink ouzo?
I mean, the best place to drink a nice glass of ouzo — referred affectionately as ouzaki by locals — is at an ouzeri, a type of bar that mainly serves ouzo and small platters of food. I highly suggest that you go to one on your next trip to Greece, as the whole experience will really give you a taste of Greece’s local food culture.
If you’re in Athens, go to Ouzeri Tou Lakis, a celebrated ouzeri in the city that might resemble a typical Greek taverna and any fish restaurant in the Aegean coast, but inside you can get platters of mezes, alongside 16 options of ouzo to drink!
Of course, if you’re traveling around Greece, you need to head to Lesbos to really get a taste of ouzo from its place of origin. In particular, go to Ouzeri Lesvos, which, true to its name, serves some of the best ouzo drinks on the island.
Keen to find more places to enjoy a nice chilled ouzaki in Greece or wherever you are? Or want to recommend me new places to drink ouzo? Download TWISPER, a social travel mobile app to discover and share your fave places to drink this delicious Greek liquor. If you liked this article, maybe you’ll also like our deep dive into the Hanky Panky.
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