Sunday, March 29, 2009

Ouzo, the Spirit of Greece

I guess you can say that ouzo is the national drink of Greece. This strong and fragrant aperitif embodies everything that is Greece: the spirit, the care-free attitude, the zest for life. And to understand just how important ouzo is to many Greeks, just take a closer look at the painting above (actually hanging in a taverna on the Greek island of Lesvos) where a bottle of Ouzo Mini is providing sustenance to a man via an I.V.!

The History of Ouzo
The name ouzo dates back to the late 19th century but its origin is ambiguous. Many do claim, however, that ouzo in one form or another dates back to antiquity. Its predecessor is known as raki, a spirit distilled throughout the Byzantine and later Ottoman Empires.

The mass production of ouzo began in Greece around the mid 1850s and flourished near the end of the 19th century, especially in the Plomari settlement of the island of Lesvos. In 1932, ouzo producers began using copper stills for distillation, a process now considered the proper method of ouzo production.

Ouzo Today
Ouzo starts as a strong spirit made from pressed grapes or raisins. Other herbs and berries are often added at the fermentation stage. The distinctive aroma of ouzo comes from the addition of aniseseed, but other ingredients (varying from producer to producer) are also used, including: coriander, cloves, angelica root, liquorice, mint, wintergreen, fennel, hazelnut, cinnamon and lime blossom. The alcohol and flavorings are placed in warmed copper stills and distilled; higher-quality ouzos are often distilled several times. The resulting spirit is stored for a few months and then diluted to achieve an average of 40% Alc. Vol.

Ouzo today is drunk in tall slim glasses either straight, on the rocks or diluted with a little cold water. It's savored with small, slow sips and an array of mezedes from refreshing sliced cucumber and tomato, olives and bread to anything from meatballs, fried fish, broiled seafood, or deep-fried vegetables. When combined with ice or water, you'll notice that crystal clear ouzo becomes cloudy and opaque; that's because the anise oil in ouzo remains soluble when the ouzo is within a range of 38%-42% Alc. Vol. and as soon as the alcohol content is reduced by adding water or ice, the essential oils transform into white crystals creating that characteristic cloudy color.

Under European Union Law (1576/1989), ouzo has been accepted and established as a Greek product, granting Greece the right to solely produce the aperitif. Most Greeks take their ouzo quite seriously ... for them drinking ouzo is revered as a form of art.

So let's take a look at the types of Ouzo we provided at our Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24 event:

Ouzo Barbayanni BLUE utilizes the traditional method of ouzo production, according to the family recipe brought by Efstathios Varvayiannis from Russia in 1860, allowing for 100% distillation. This ouzo includes a pure essence of aniseed and sweet-smelling herbs, with probably the highest alcohol content of any ouzo, 46% Alc. by Vol. all complemented by the distinctive water of Plomari, a settlement on the island of Lesvos. The renowned Ouzo Barbayanni BLUE has a pleasant aroma, a pure and transparent color and a delicate flavor. It was actually the crowd favorite among the five brands we set out.

Ouzo Plomari was created in 1894 by Isidoros Arvanitis. One of only a few brands of ouzo packaged with a cork, Ouzo Plomari by Isidoros Arvanitis is among the most popular brands in Greece today. At 42% Alc. by Vol. it's fragrant licorice flavor provides for a pleasant balance of taste. The ingredients used in the Ouzo Plomari secret recipe are soft water from the springs of the river Sedountas, aniseed from the village of Lisvori, fennel from the north of Evia island, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg and extracts of mastic gum.

Ouzo Tirnavou
Ouzo Tirnavou was created in 1856 by Nikos Katsarou, and according to the company, is the first Ouzo ever created. It's said that in 1850 the Katsarou family came into possession of a still (quite common in Tirnavos at the time) as part of their dowry and started experimenting with the distillation process of Tsipouro. By adding a variety of aromatics, however, the family sucessfully produced a brand new product: Ouzo. The Tirnavou brand of ouzo has an alcohol content of 40% Alc. by Vol.

Ouzo 12 dates back to 1880 when the Kalogiannis brothers began producing their version of the anise flavored aperitif in Constantinople. For 125 years now, seeds and botanicals from the East come together using the original secret recipe of this ouzo's founders to create a flavorful and aromatic drink with an alcohol content of 38% Alc. by Vol.

Ouzo No. 7 (Chios)
The light licorice flavor and soft aroma of this ouzo produced by the Tetteris Distillery on the island of Chios, is quite a good choice for one looking for an ouzo not as strong as many others. Local aniseseeds and mastic are combined to produce this aperitif which is said to have been first created back in 1846 when the company's founder, Stylianos Tetteris, began distilling spirits for family and friends. In 1912, Ioannis Tetteris, following in his father's footsteps, established a distillery, which has continued producing ouzo on Chios uninterrupted since then. Ouzo No. 7 boasts an alcohol content of 39% Alc. by Vol.

Ouzo Cocktails ... Stin Ygeia Mas!
In addition to sipping ouzo straight or with ice, guests who attended our Foodbuzz 24, 24, 24: Greek Ouzo Tasting ... in New York enjoyed cocktails featuring ouzo as well. My lovely sister played the role of bartender and offered up these refreshing drinks:

Jellybean (Ouzo and lemonade over--you guessed it--candy jellybeans)

Eight Iron (Ouzo, Banana Liqueur and Blue Curacao over ice)

Be sure to come back tomorrow when recipes for all those yummy mezedes served with all this ouzo will finally be posted!


Peter G said...

A fantastic, informative post Maria! I love those cocktails! Thank you for taking the time to explain the various types and makes...absolutely love it!

Ivy said...

I'm not much of a drinker but once in a while I'll drink some ouzo with my husband who loves it.
Thanks for the informative post.
Ouzo is certainly very old but it took it's name when exporting it to Marseilles the customs wrote on the boxes Per uso Marseilles, in other words to be used in Marseilles.

Anonymous said...

hi maria,

you know i don't think i've ever had ouzo before! yes shame on me. now that i have your guidance i'll have to venture out. the food looks great!

Anonymous said...

My favourite ouzo Maria is the Barbagianni and Pitsiladi, but the second one is not easy to find outside of Mitilini

Peter M said...

Thanks for the write-up...of the Ouzos you've featured here, I like the Plomari best but they are all delicious...with some ice to slighty dillute the drink and mezedes...LOTS of mezedes.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful information on ouzo! I also really enjoyed reading your 24 post!

Shopaholic said...

I wish I could try OUZO too! I love to try the cocktail you described. Great post! Janet_Gourmettraveller 88