The origin of Greek ouzo is unclear, but it suspected that it is a descendent of tsipouro. As tsipouro is made by distillation we do know that the Byzantine Empire had a vast knowledge of the method judging from advanced distilling copper equipment found in Armenia and Ponto, also the earth of Asia Minor and Thrace where grapes and figs dominated and the cultivation of aniseed on Lemnos and Lesvos and mastic on Chios.
What is believed and is most likely the true version of the discovery of ouzo, is that it came about in the Greek Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos during the 14th century as the peninsular was known for the quality of its tsipouro and the variant flavour with aniseed becoming known as ouzo. The one component linking all Greek Ouzo is aniseed that gives it that distinctive taste.
The oils in the aniseed are what give it its white opaque colour when water is added. The variation in the flavours from region to region (with at least 400 brands) is due to several reasons – mainly the water in the area, but more so in the blends of the spices and herbs used. Even though Greece is a small country in size, it has an extremely diverse ecosystem, therefore each location has distinct vegetation with a variety of herbs.
Some of the ingredients that give ouzo its flavour – apart from aniseed are: cloves, cinnamon, coriander, mace, star anise, fennel, salt, mastic from Chios, mint, liquorice, wintergreen, hazelnut, angelica root, lime blossom, and a host of other herbs and spices. In October 2006, Greece won the right to label ouzo as an exclusively Greek product and the European Union now recognizes ouzo, as well as the Greek drinks tsipouro and tsikoudia as products with a Protected Designation of Origin, which makes it illegal and prevents other Europeans other then Greece and Cyprus from using the name.
Similar drinks are found in other parts of the immediate area, Oghi from Western Armenia, raki from Turkey, (the Cretans still tend to call their tsikoudia raki), pastis from France, and arak from the Levant. There are aniseed-flavoured liqueurs in nearby countries such as: in Italy sambuca, in Spain anis, and the stronger spirit of absinthe in Switzerland and France, arak in Lebanon and Syria.
I have been to Beirut and have had the pleasure of arak, but I might be a little bias as it has a long way to go to be as good as ouzo. Modern ouzo distillation in Greece took off in the 19th century following Greek Independence. The island of Lesvos, in the north-east Aegean, was and still is a major producer and lays claim to the invention of ouzo. Although that is a matter for conjecture, it can lay claim to some of the best ouzo produced in Greece today. The island of Chios is also a major producer. When French absinthe fell out of favour in the 20th century due to its hallucinatory properties, ouzo gained in popularity and was once called “a substitute for absinthe without the wormwood”, the herb that gave it this capability of hallucination.
Drinking ouzo the traditional way means that it is never drunk without some solid food, hence the ouzomeze. It is considered poor form to drink ouzo xerosfiri (ξερωσφύρι), meaning “dry hammer”, an idiom for drinking any alcohol with out eating and the effect it has on ones head and digestive system if drunk on an empty stomach. Ouzo is usually consumed as a relaxing afternoon interlude or as an aperitif. Often we see people sitting at their local kafenio or tavrna sipping ouzo with a tiny plate of olives or nuts as a snack.
There are off course the special taverna called the Ouzeri where the ouzo is consumed along with a selection of meze over a lengthy period of time. This is a proper meal. I have written about the origins of the ouzeri in the past under the heading “Tsipouradika”. I have given you several recipes for ways of using ouzo in cooking and I can assure you it does something to the food that no other alcohol has been able to do. Be adventurous and replace vanilla or brandy with ouzo in your cakes, put it in fish and vegetable dishes for a truly remarkable turn of taste.
As for meze for drinking ouzo, here are some suggestions. Walnut skordalia, cheese saganaki, bekri meze, prawn saganaki, olives, cheese, taramosalata, tirokafteri, and just about any other dip. For my readers, if you want any of the above recipes or articles you have missed out on and can’t find them on the Neos Kosmos website please feel free to write to me firstname.lastname@example.org . If you have comments put them on line, but if you need information, recipes or anything that you don’t understand in my recipes please email me at the above address.
Στην ύγεια μας – pronounced “Stin igia mas (to our health). In Greece say this instead of cheers when having a drink.