What Is Ouzo?

A Guide to Buying and Drinking Ouzo

what is ouzo illustration

The Spruce Eats / Brianna Gilmartin

Ouzo is an anise-flavored liquor produced from grape must (the remnants of wine-making). It can only be made in Greece and Cyprus and may include other spices beyond anise. No other beverage is as uniquely Greek or as closely linked to a culture as ouzo is to Greece. Greeks drink the most ouzo and ouzeries (ouzo bars) serve it alongside appetizers called meze. Often drunk on its own or gently diluted, ouzo has a very strong anise (black licorice) flavor that takes some getting used to. It is also a potent liquor that is not for the faint of heart.

Ouzo vs. Raki

Ouzo and raki are two eastern Mediterranean distilled spirits that have the distinct flavor of anise. Raki comes from Turkey and served as inspiration for many anise-liquors, including ouzo. Both are distilled from leftovers of wine production, anise is the dominant flavoring ingredient, and they're most often enjoyed with meze. They have an equally strong aroma and taste, though the biggest difference is the strength. Where ouzo is typically no stronger than 90 proof, it's easy to find raki as high as 180 proof.

Fast Facts

  • Ingredients: Anise, grape must, other spices
  • Proof: 75–90
  • ABV: 37.5–45%
  • Calories in a shot: 103
  • Origin: Greece
  • Taste: Strong anise, sweet
  • Serve: Straight, on the rocks, cocktails

What Is Ouzo Made From?

Ouzo is made similar to tsipouro, which is the Greek equivalent to Italy's grappa. Tsipouro had long been made in Greece and is a brandy distilled from the must or remnants of grapes pressed for winemaking. Using the same type of base (though considerably stronger), ouzo is traditionally distilled in copper pot stills and flavored with anise. Other spices like cardamom, cinnamon, clove, coriander, fennel, mint, and mastic may be used in a distillery's recipe as well. Greek law states that the finished distillate must contain no less than 20 percent of the original ouzo yeast and be bottled at a minimum of 37.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV, 75 proof).

Most ouzo falls around 80 proof. While that seems mild in comparison to high-proof whiskeys and rums, ouzo is potent and fiery. The high sugar content 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.

Ouzo was first commercially distilled in 1856. It is exclusively a product of Greece and Cyprus. In 2006, the Greek government won the exclusive rights to use the product name ouzo. It is protected by an appellation PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) and a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) recognized by the European Union. The island of Lesvos (Mytilini) prides itself as the hub of ouzo production, accounting for half of the country's ouzo from 17 distilleries. It's widely known for some of the best ouzo in Greece. Recipes for distilling ouzo may be similar, though most are closely guarded family secrets.

What Does Ouzo Taste Like?

Clear and silky, with a distinct licorice flavor, ouzo is captivating and unforgettable.

How to Drink Ouzo

Ouzo is customarily served neat, without ice, and often in a tall, skinny glass called a kanoakia (similar to a highball glass). Greeks may add iced water to dilute the strength, which causes the liquid to turn an opaque, milky white. Known as the "ouzo effect," it's due to the anise oils and is similar to the louche produced when pouring absinthe. If you add ice directly to the ouzo, you will create unsightly crystals on the surface of your drink.

Most Greeks would scoff at the idea of ouzo being mixed with anything but water. If you would like to mask the taste, add water, lemon juice, mint leaves, and honey to make ouzo lemonade. In other parts of the world, it is used on occasion as a cocktail mixer or a substitute for other anise-flavored spirits.

Greeks love this drink so much that there are countless ouzo bars across Greece called ouzeries. 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. These savory small plates of food are an essential component of the social side of drinking ouzo. Despite its strong flavor, ouzo compliments many different types of food and the meze menu will often be long and varied. When drinking ouzo, the customary toast is "stin uyeia sou" (steen ee-YEE-ah soo), or "to your health!"

Cocktail Recipes

Ouzo is typically not a cocktail ingredient. However, it can be used as a substitute for other anise-flavored liqueurs, such as absinthe, anisette, pastis, and sambuca.

Popular Brands

Ouzo brands tend to have dedicated followings. Some of the best ouzo is exclusive to the country, though there are a number of well-known brands that enjoy international distribution. Since ouzo can vary greatly from one distillery to another, it is recommended to give a few brands a taste to find one that you enjoy most.

  • Kefi
  • Ouzo 12
  • Ouzo Barbayianni
  • Ouzo Mini
  • Plomari Tinarvou
  • Sans Rival

Cooking With Ouzo

Ouzo can be used in cooking to add a distinct anise flavor to almost any dish. Greeks will use ouzo in recipes that range from seafood marinades to cookies.