Taste the delicious national drink of Greece, ouzo. Here are the do and don'ts to make the most of it.
No visit to Greece is complete without at least a taste of the delicious iced alcoholic beverage called ouzo. Almost everyone has heard of it, but very few people know what ouzo really is - or how to drink it properly.
What is ouzo?
Greek ouzo is a sweet and strong alcoholic beverage, similar to a liqueur, which is made from the by-products of the grape after its use in winemaking (mainly the skins and stems). It is then distilled into a high-strength alcoholic beverage flavored mainly with aniseed, which gives it a distinct liquorice taste. Other herbs and spices are added to enhance the flavor, and each manufacturer keeps its recipe secret. The quality of the distillation process and the aromas make each brand of ouzo very different in taste. As with wine, tasting different brands will teach you to distinguish between the fine and the "rotten" ones.
The name "ouzo" has three possible origins - either the ancient Greek word ózó (smell), because of the distinctive aroma of the drink; the Turkish word "ūzūm" (grape); or the Italian phrase "uso Massalia" (to be used in Marseille), a stamp once affixed to high quality products.
Although it is usually called an aperitif, it is an inappropriate term. The Greeks simply do not drink it as a drink before or after dinner. Drinking Greek ouzo is a cultural ritual that has its own time and place, usually in the late afternoon or early evening, and always accompanied by small plates of food.
Ouzo: do's and don'ts
- Enjoy a warm or sunny afternoon, or an hour's treat in the early evening.
- Drink it cold, but don't refrigerate it. Place one or two ice cubes in a small glass. Pour a small amount of Greek ouzo over the ice. The ouzo changes from clear to cloudy when the aniseed reacts with the ice. You can also pour a small amount of ouzo into a glass and then add some very cold water instead of ice.
- Don't hit the ouzo! This is counterproductive, and the resulting intoxication will be the worst you've ever seen - not to mention producing the most vicious hangover you've ever seen.
- Drink it with a small plate or two of meze - the Greek version of tapas. Always drink it with food. Ouzo is very strong; drinking it on an empty stomach is a very bad idea. The Greeks are proud to associate and serve specific types of meze with ouzo, such as grilled octopus, shrimp and squid; cheese, vegetable and meat platters, or other "small bites". There are even special establishments called 'ouzeries' which are dedicated solely to this practice.
- Drink slowly. Do not swallow it quickly. Greek ouzo is meant to be savored; the ritual of ouzo and meze is meant to be relaxing and the process should be enjoyed for two hours or more.
- Do not drink ouzo as an aperitif (before dinner), in a digestive (after dinner) or during dinner. The taste does not complement traditional Greek dishes. At meals, Greeks drink wine, beer or soft drinks, and always bottled table water.
- In Greece, enjoy high-end drinks on the islands (rely on local knowledge to guide you) or Plomari and Ouzo Mini products, which are available everywhere on store shelves. Don't be tempted by the cheap brands - your head and stomach will regret it!
- Finally, to fully appreciate and enjoy not only the drink itself, but also the cultural ritual of drinking, absolutely drink ouzo - Greek style!