Ouzo from Greece

A Greek holiday is not complete without enjoying a glass of ouzo, Greece’s national drink. Ouzo is a liquorice flavoured alcoholic drink that can be served as an aperitif or enjoyed after a meal.

For many years ouzo was considered a drink for the older generation but nowadays it has picked up a cool reputation among the young.

Like wine, ouzo is made from vines, but it’s mainly the leftover grape skins and vine stems that are distilled into a strong, sweet, liqueur-like alcohol with a high proof.

The liquorice flavour comes from the addition of anise but other spice and herbs are often added that ouzo distillers prefer to keep secret. Ouzo comes in different ‘grades’ and the method of distillation, as well as the quality of the ingredients, can result in a different taste from each manufacturer.

The drink is said to have originated on Mount Athos in Halkidiki when14th century monks made the first ouzo.

It began to be made in quantity on the northeast Aegean island of Lesvos around 1830 when Greece won independence from the Turks. And in 2006 Greece got an EU Protected Designation of Origin accolade, winning exclusive rights to the name. These days, if it is bottled and sold as ouzo, then it must have been made in Greece.

Drinking ouzo in Greece is has plenty of cultural baggage, often being served in the late afternoon or early evening.  The Greeks will always add cold or iced water to ouzo when, like other anise-flavoured drinks, it turns a milky white. Adding ice cubes directly is not recommended as it can really in crystals forming on the surface of the drink.

Ouzo is meant to be sipped slowly and savoured one time; a small glass will often take an hour to drink. Ouzo is also rarely drunk without food and is usually served with ‘mezedes’ or small plates of bread, cheese, olives, octopus, sardines and other seafood dishes.

Many towns and villages have an ‘ouzerie’ dedicated to serving ouzo with small plates of seafood.

Ouzo can be served in tavernas as an aperitif or enjoyed after a meal but some say it doesn’t taste great with traditional Greek meat dishes like moussaka or stifado when beer or wine is preferred. In fact, it’s a favourite ingredient in many traditional seafood recipes and can also be added to Greek desserts.

The Greeks often use ouzo as a medicine. Head colds can be relieved by a warm ouzo at bedtime they say. Its antiseptic properties are also thought to be good for treating minor cuts and scratches. Some Greek will also use it for easing aches and pains by rubbing it into joints and muscles.

As to who makes the best ouzo, there are a few large distributors but a great deal in Greece is distilled by small, local, artisan outfits.

Many of the cheaper ouzos are not actually distilled but simply blended and bottled. Properly distilled ouzo is the real thing and far better. Brands of ouzo tend to have their ardent fans. Most agree the best ouzo comes from Lesvos, also called Mytilini, and the biggest brands there are:

  • Mini This is probably best-known ouzo that started life in Lesvos. It’s a very mild and smooth ouzo that’s sold all over Greece.
  • Matis This Lesvos ouzo brand of the has picked up many awards and widely available all over the island, especially in the capital town of Mytilini where production is based.
  • Barbayanni Distilled near the south coast resort of Plomari Barbayanni is considered one of the best-tasting and is renowned not only on Lesvos but the whole of Greece.
  • Giannatsi Again from Plomari, Giannatsi is distilled in traditional wood burning still but it is only sold locally so it’s pretty hard to find outside Lesvos.

There are many other brands worth buying such as Sans Rival, Pitsiladi and the well known Plomari. Also popular is the brand Ouzo12 which is found outside Greece and is distilled to suit more international tastes.

Ouzo is a strong and potent drink and often has an alcohol content of about 40%. Its high sugar content also helps delay the release of alcohol so drinkers tend to feel the effects sometime after drinking.

Drinkers are advised to add iced water, sip the ouzo slowly and nibble at some food or the ouzo effects of could sneak up and catch you unawares.