There is an old Greek saying that "ouzo makes the spirit" and this is especially true in Greece. The Greek spirit or kefi (KEH-fee) is found in hearty food, soulful music, and the love of lively conversation. A glass of chilled ouzo is the perfect companion to all of these things.
Most people would agree that ouzo is Greece's most popular alcoholic drink. No other beverage is as uniquely Greek or as closely linked to a culture as ouzo is to Greece. In fact, in 2006, the Greek government won the exclusive rights to use the product name ouzo.
Clear and silky, with a distinct licorice flavor, ouzo is distilled from the must or remnants of grapes pressed for wine. It can be flavored with spices like anise, mint, mastic, and coriander. Potent and fiery, it is not a drink for the faint of heart. It has an alcohol content of about 40% (depending on the brand) but also a high sugar content that delays the release of the alcohol into your system. Drinkers are advised to use caution because the effects of ouzo will sneak up on you.
The island of Lesvos (Mytilini) prides itself as the hub of ouzo production and is widely known to have some of the best ouzo in Greece. Recipes for distilling ouzo may be similar from location to location. However, you will find that these are often closely guarded family secrets.
Brands of Ouzo
Ouzo brands tend to have followings like soccer teams and foster the same type of loyalty in their dedicated fans. Some of the better-known brands available outside of Greece are Ouzo 12, Sans Rival, Ouzo Barbayianni, and Ouzo Mini. In Greece, brands such as Plomari, Tinarvou, and Kefi are also widely enjoyed.
Ouzo is customarily served neat - no ice. The Greeks will add iced water to dilute the strength causing the liquid to turn an opaque, milky white. If you add the ice directly to the ouzo, you will create unsightly crystals on the surface of your drink. There is a technical explanation for this emulsion that according to ScienceDaily.com is known as "the ouzo effect."
Most Greeks would scoff at the idea of ouzo being mixed with anything but water - so to avoid embarrassment, skip the usual mixers and stick with water if you need to dilute it. One manufacturer even recommends that you serve ouzo in a narrow glass so that the nose is protected from the inebriating fumes that may come off of your drink.
Drinks and Food
Greeks love this drink so much that there are countless ouzo bars across Greece called ouzeries (ooh-zeh-REE-es). These are casual places that specialize in many different types of ouzo, but even more importantly are popular for their tantalizing array of appetizers known as mezethes (meh-ZEH-thes).
These savory small plates of food are an essential component of the social side of ouzo drinking. Despite its strong flavor, ouzo compliments many different types of food and the meze menu will often be long and varied.
In a typical ouzeri, patrons will linger over their drinks and food, sipping slowly and nibbling at their plates. The conversation becomes more and more robust, and the noise level escalates. The unhurried pace and animated dialogues are quintessentially Greek and the mark of a great parea (pah-REH-ah), or gathering.
Not Just for Drinking
Ouzo can be used in cooking to add a distinct anise flavor to most any dish. Greeks will use ouzo in many recipes from seafood marinades to cookies. Others believe that ouzo (or more specifically anise) has healing properties and will use ouzo to ease an upset stomach or relieve a headache. Parents of teething babies will often rub a bit of ouzo on their infants' gums to soothe their discomfort.
Next time you enjoy a glass, remember the customary toast is stin uyeia sou (steen ee-YEE-ah soo) - to your health!