So what is this ‘tsip-ou-ro’ that everyone suddenly seems to be raving about? Some may remember their grandparents telling with pride of the tsipouro they concocted in their village, others of the pleasures of sipping it by the Aegean Sea somewhere while on a Greek holiday, but most Australians have never heard of it before. This sad fact is something of an irony, given the fame of Greek cuisine and the fact that tsipouro is the perfect complement to its delicious flavours.
It is widely held that tsipouro was first devised by wine making Greek Orthodox monks in the 14th century. In their search for the divine, they came upon the idea of first fermenting and then distilling grape skin and residual grape juice to make an alcoholic beverage. It is, in fact, very much like how French cognac is produced. Like cognac, the distinctiveness of tsipouro depends a great deal on the type and quality of the grapes used. What is different, however, is that tsipouro is colourless and its crisp flavour also comes from the addition of natural herbs and aromatic plants, not the resins of wood-barrel ‘aged’ storage.
From this humble beginning in a monastery, the secrets of tsipouro production eventually became known to select families in specific regions of Greece, who produced it for village festivities and their own special occasions. Called tsikoudia or raki on Crete, on the mainland (particularly in Macedonia, Epirus, and Thessaly) it became known as tsipouro and for centuries it was produced locally, with its traditions being passed down from generation to generation. Viniculture expertise, the addition of a special combination of wild herbs and aromatic plants, along with exact methods of the distillation process all became (and in many cases still are) jealously guarded family secrets. Despite its deep roots, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that legislation allowed the production and bottling of tsipouro by especially accredited distilleries and this marked a significant change in the tsipouro story; it became more accessible to the people who appreciated both its unique taste and its significance in Greek culture. In recognition of this, it now has European ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ status, meaning it can only be produced and bottled in Greece using locally grown grapes.
The region of Thessaly has always been associated with tsipouro and tsipouro production. The coastal city of Volos, nestled between the foothills of Mt Pelion and the Pagasetic Gulf, is particularly renowned for its unique ‘Tsiporadikos’, which are specialty Greek seafood restaurants where tsipouro is served in chilled miniature bottles to be poured by the patrons themselves. Each round of tsipouro (normally a couple of miniature bottles) comes with one or more portions of Greek food or ‘mezedes’ which are meant to be shared and are far ranging in type. They include a delicious variety of things such as calamari, sautéed mussels, crusty bread with various Greek dips or just a simple plate of olives and feta lightly sprinkled with oregano. Whether mezedes are seafood based or come from the rich, earthy tastes of fresh farm produce, they are entirely complementary to the taste and aromas of tsipouro.
The excitement of tsipouro (with anise) is further enhanced by the fact that adding water or ice makes it go a cloudy-white colour and releases its rich aromatic character which irresistibly adds to the flavours of food.
Given its history, its distinctive flavour and the fact that it is a unique beverage made with patriotic pride, it is little wonder that tsipouro is held in high esteem in many Greek hearts. It has become synonymous with fine food, good conversation and lots of fun. So, next time you are in Greek restaurant, why not ask if they serve tsipouro with mezedes? It is an experience you won’t regret.