Melbourne couple turn Greek family recipe of early 1800s to award-winning business

Jim and Eleni have made a home in regional Victoria that brings together two migrant family legacies in the craft of distilling ouzo.

How many family gatherings can you recall with ouzo and meze on the table?

Partners in life Jim Koutsougeras and Eleni Lambropoulos can count between them dozens of them.

“Ouzo has been on our table forever, a part of our life you know,” Jim tells Neos Kosmos.

“From a distillation perspective it was a hobby for me and my family. And then when I met Eleni […] her parents also distilled tsipouro, ouzo and when we got together it continued to be a hobby, you know sharing notes and techniques and I guess it just grew from there.”

Following a move to Macedon Ranges, the couple started playing with the idea of creating something that would continue weaving the same connections they were raised in for generations to come.

Jim’s mum, Kyriaki, and dad, Panayoti, far left with friends in their village, Vlaherna circa 1950s. Photo: Supplied/Jim Koutsougeras

“It’s very sentimental,” Eleni says of their family legacies in distilling ouzo with recipes dating back to early 1800s Greece.

“We wouldn’t want to lose track of those. But we were like ‘let’s think about putting our own spin as children of Greek migrants born in Australia who have sort of a different outlook on what people like today.'”

Transitioning from his corporate job to investing his time and energy in the venture, in 2019 Jim started planning the setup of what today is Macedon Distillery.

A full-time office working mum, Eleni says helping run the distillery “doesn’t feel like work”. “It’s something we just love doing. Yes, Anison is the driving force but it’s also everything else around it in our culture that we want to share with people.” Photo: Facebook/Macedon Distillery

“Getting the relevant licenses, proper equipment for commercial use to scale up and setting it up. It takes a lot of planning to start a business.”

The next years were full of developments, new beginnings and a great loss, with Jim’s father passing away, the couple’s little one, Panayioti, being born a few months later, and Jim completing a distillery course at Adelaide University.

Jim’s dad Panayioti and his uncle Panayioti Koutsougeras crafting Brandy circa 1970s. Photo: Supplied/Jim Koutsougeras.

“I knew how to distil from a young age but distillation is an art. It’s not just the recipe. It’s not like cooking a roast in the oven and you know you put all the ingredients together and somehow you get it right. There’s this whole science involved in distillation.

“I wanted to actually get the theory behind it as well.”

Jim recounts this marking the shift from a hobby he loved to taking distilling to a quality-driven level.

“My mum would always taste test or would tell my dad where to get the grapes from […] You always see men distilling and the female role isn’t really celebrated,” says Eleni. Here, Eleni’s mum, Maria Lambropoulos, at a family event turning a lamb circa 1970s. Photo: Supplied/Jim Koutsougeras
“Had my father been presented with the same opportunities, because of all the hard work he did, he would have done it. I guess I was lucky enough that I was able to get formally educated on it.

“It’s about taking something from a hobby into a commercial space.”

The couple’s new take on the ouzo distillation process gave birth to a Greek infused anise-based spirit.

“We don’t call it ouzo, as it’s not made in Greece. We call it Anison.”

Jim’s dad (far left) and Jim’s mum (3rd from left) dancing at a family event circa 1970s. Photo: Supplied/Jim Koutsougeras

While based on their families’ recipes dating back to early 1800s, the Anison recipe comes with a twist “so that it suits our generation as well,” Jim states.

“So keeping our recipe as close as possible to the traditional one but if we don’t challenge the status quo, we don’t learn different ways, methods in how we do things.”

The couple have built a clientele supplying restaurants but they are also tapping into the cocktail market.

“The way I’ve created this product is to give people the opportunity to taste a really good quality beverage and one that matches well with cocktails,” Jim says.

“So it goes well with a mojito, and other types of cocktail beverages, so that bars and restaurants have something different on their menu, as opposed to just the stock standard cocktails going around.

What ouzo and yuvarlakia have in common the couple says, “is their recipes have been passed down through our family for generations, and both are a favourite at any Greek get-together!” Here Jim’s dad holding a tray of the Greek comfort food ready to be cooked. Photo: Facebook/Macedon Distillery

“It’s early days, but we’re very pleased with the recognition so far.”

The couple’s distillery has scooped five industry awards over the past year.

“It exceeded our expectations. I mean we knew it was good, but we never thought that we’d have industry judges in major competitions that are represented by some pretty big players,” says Jim.

Eleni believes that their focus in portraying the female role in the distilling process, visually manifested in their logo representing Greek mythology figure Methe, was among the reasons that made them stand out of the crowd.

Louis Lambropoulos, Eleni’s dad at a 2022 Macedon Distillery event. “Dad has been an avid supporter of every element of the business and in particular the making of Anison.” Photo: Supplied/Jim Koutsougeras.

“It can be a very male-dominated industry. When we went to the awards, a lot of the distillers were men.

“But you know for us, it is also about how women play such a significant role in the distilling process and in bringing people together and putting food and alcohol on the table.”

She elaborates on the partnership between men and women in the distilling process based on their direct family experiences and historical narrations.

“Not only in supporting the process but taking a strong leadership role just not necessarily shown.”

Describing herself as a “history buff”, Eleni says she grew up with Greek migrations stories and Greek mythology.

When considering how to pass down their culture to their son and share it with others, she says, everything comes into play. From those stories, through to language preservation and portraying cultural aspects in the business venture.

Their collection of accolades includes gold awards in both the 2023 Royal Australian Distilled Spirits Awards and 2023 Tasting Australia Spirit Awards – Alternative Spirits. Photo: Supplied/Jim Koutsougeras

“In the Greek Gods stories you see alcohol playing a big part in connection and we wanted to tell a story about alcohol in a way that is important within our culture.”

Jim echoes the same when asked about the new journey he has embarked on as a distiller.

“I guess the real driver was that we’re passionate about sharing our culture.

“And building a brand that represented what we truly love in that.”