You’d think that ouzo, a quintessentially Greek drink with protected designation of origin, would be an acquired taste.
The dry anise-flavoured aperitif is made from surplus wine and lees from wine production through a process of distillation and flavouring that is similar to other liquors like raki, arak, pastis and sambuco. Though the drink doesn’t seem to be for all palates at first sip, it has successfully made its way into Aussie drinking culture as the growing success of the 30-year Ouzo Festival in Melbourne has shown.
George Karantonis from the Palesviaki Enosis, who will be the MC for the festival, remembers the event’s first timid steps when it was little more than a community gathering of migrants from Lesbos who got together to lift up their glasses and drink to their homeland, famed for its ouzo.
“There were just 50 to 100 people who got together at first, but last year there were 3,000 people, and not just Greeks,” Mr Karantonis told Neos Kosmos. “If you really think about it, the Ouzo Festival is second only to the Lonsdale Street Greek Festival when it comes to numbers.”
Though ouzo is the centrepiece, the festival is more than just an event about the signature product. “Ouzo is also about it’s accompaniments,” Mr Karantonis said, referring to the mezedes (appetisers) that are traditionally served with the drink. “You can’t have ouzo without octopus, sardines, fasoles ksyres (baked beans), kalamari and all the other appetisers traditionally served with the drink.”
The festival is the nearest you can get to Mytilene when in Australia. “The celebration of ouzo and sardines are celebrated every year on our island, that is blessed with amazing produce, including virgin olive oil,” Mr Karantonis said. “Festivities there take place at Epano Skala and you’ll find many Greek Australians present.”
He admits that the best ouzo he has tasted is that of his homeland. “You can’t find a table without ouzo when you visit the island,” he said, adding that the estimated 10,000 people from Lesbos in Melbourne have embraced the festival and see it as a bridge to the home they’ve left behind.
Visitors to the Ouzo Festival will get to enjoy Mytilenean hospitality with Greek music, dancing and live entertainment with George Malliaros and Doukissa – niece of Greece’s famed singer Doukissa – and the Pegasus Dance Academy.
“It may be about drinking but it’s also a fun family day out with jumping castles, face painting swings and stalls to check out,” Mr Karantonis said.
When: 11am-6pm, 16 February
Where: 26 Waldheim Road, Bayswater
Cost: $20 for 18+ (includes unlimited ouzo and an ouzo glass to keep), free for children
Telephone: 0405 296 558
How to drink ouzo
* Enjoy ouzo on a hot day in the late afternoon or early evening.
* Don’t refrigerate, but do place a couple of ice cubes in a small glass. Pour in ouzo. The drink will turn from clear to cloudy as the anise reacts with the ice. Add some chilled water.
* Don’t do ouzo shots as the drink is meant to be slowly savoured. And you’ll also get a hangover to boot.
* Do drink it with appetisers such as octopus, sardines, beans, calamari, etc.
* Do try different ouzo brands, such as Plomari, Mini, Tyrnavos, etc.
* Do try an ouzo cocktail.