Ouzo (ούζο) is an anise-flavored spirit that is widely consumed in Greece and Cyprus. Its taste is quite similar to arak/raki in the Levant and Turkey, pastis or absinthe (France), Sambuca (Italy), mastika (Chios). It can be consumed neat or mixed with water.
The history of ouzo is somewhat murky, but some claim it may date back in one form or another to ancient times. Its precursor is tsipouro (known by some Easterners as raki), a drink distilled throughout the Byzantine Empire and continued throughout Ottoman times. Traditionally, Tsipouro is said to have been the pet project of a group of 14th century monks living in a monastery on holy Mount Athos. One version of it is flavored with Anise. It is this version that eventually came to be called Ouzo.
Modern ouzo distillation largely took off in the 19th century following Greek independence, with much production centered on the island of Lesbos, which claims to be the originator of the drink and remains a major producer. When absinthe fell into disfavour in the early 20th century ouzo is one of the products whose popularity may have gained (it was once called "a substitute for absinthe without the wormwood".) In 1932, ouzo producers developed the method of distillation using copper stills, which is now considered the canonically proper method of production. One of the largest producers of ouzo today is Varvayanis (Βαρβαγιάννης), located in the town of Plomari in the southeast portion of the island, while in the same town pistillate (Πιτσιλαδή), a variety of high quality ouzo, is also distilled.
Commonly, but not at all traditional in the western world, ouzo is served with cola either in premixed cans or bottles or simply mixed to the desired taste. However Ouzo is traditionally mixed with water, becoming cloudy white, sometimes with a faint blue tinge, and served with ice cubes in a small glass. Ouzo can also be drunk, straight, from a shot glass. Mixing ouzo with cola destroys the liquorice-like taste of Ouzo. On October 25, 2006, Greece won the right to label ouzo as an exclusively Greek product. The European Union now recognizes ouzo, as well as the Greek drinks tsipouro and tsikoudia, as products with a protected designation of origin, which prohibits makers outside Greece from using the name.
The origin of the name "ouzo" is disputed. A popular derivation is from the Italian "uso Massalia" - for use in Marseille - stamped on selected silkworm cocoons exported from Tyrnavos in the 19th century. According to anecdote, this designation came to stand for "superior quality", which the spirit distilled as ouzo was thought to possess.
During a visit to Thessaly in 1896, the late professor Alexander Philadelpheus delivered to us valuable information on the origins of the word "ouzo", which has come to replace the word "tsipouro". According to the professor, tsipouro gradually became ouzo after the following event: Thessaly exported fine cocoons to Marseilles during the 19th century, and in order to distinguish the product, outgoing crates would be stamped with the words "uso Massalia"— Italian for "to be used in Marseille". One day, the Turkish consulate physician, named Anastas Bey, happened to be visiting the town of Tyrnavos and was asked to sample the local tsipouro. Upon tasting the drink, the physician immediately exclaimed: "This is uso Massalia, my friends"—referring to its high quality. The term subsequently spread by word of mouth, until tsipouro gradually became known as ouzo.—The Times of Thessaly, 1959.
A more likely explanation, however, is given by Sir G. Clauson in his book "An Etymological Dictionary of Pre-Thirteenth Century Turkish", Oxford 1972. At page 288 he says that the word "ouzo" derives from the word "üzüm", which means grapes in Turkish.
Ouzo starts by distilling 96 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) pure ethyl alcohol of agricultural origin (or 96 percent pure ethyl alcohol in which 0.05 percent natural anethole has been added) in copper stills together with anise and optionally other flavorings, such as star anise, coriander, cloves, and cinnamon. The composition of flavoring ingredients are often closely-guarded company secrets and serve to distinguish one Ouzo from another. The product is a flavored alcoholic solution known as flavored ethyl alcohol or, more commonly as ouzo yeast—μαγιά ούζου in Greek—a misnomer, as no fermentation has taken or will take place. Ouzo yeast is then usually mixed with 96 percent pure ethyl alcohol (the Greek law dictates that at least 20 percent of total final alcohol must originate from ouzo yeast), and finally sugar may be added and the mix is diluted with water (final ABV must be at least 37.5 percent), usually around 40 percent ABV. Some producers such as Varvayiannis, Babatzim (ouzo classic) and Pitsiladis do not add any further ethyl alcohol—they simply dilute ouzo yeast with water (and add sugar if needed). This type of ouzo is the highest quality and often of the highest price as well.
Ouzo production does not include any fermentation or multiple distillations, which is the case for tsipouro, another well known Greek alcoholic drink which is more related to Italian grappa than ouzo.
In modern Greece, ouzeries (the suffix -erie is imported from French) can be found in nearly all cities, towns, and villages. These cafe-like establishments serve ouzo with mezedes — appetizers such as octopus, salad, sardines, calamari, fried zucchini, and clams, among others. It is traditionally slowly sipped (usually mixed with water or ice) together with mezedes shared with others over a period of several hours in the early evening.
In other countries it is tradition to have ouzo in authentic Greek restaurants as an aperitif, served in a shot glass and deeply chilled before the meal is started. No water or ice is added but the drink is served very cold, enough to make some crystals form in the drink as it is served.
Ouzo is often referred to as a particularly strong drink, although its alcohol content is not especially high compared to other liquor. The reason mainly has to do with its sugar content. Sugar delays ethanol absorption in the stomach, and may thus mislead the drinker into thinking that they can drink more as they do not feel tipsy early on. Then the cumulative effect of ethanol appears and the drinker becomes inebriated rather quickly. This is why it is generally considered poor form to drink ouzo "ξεροσφύρι" (xerosfýri, "dry hammer", an idiomatic expression that means "drinking alcohol without eating anything") in Greece. The presence of food, especially fats or oils, in the upper digestive system prolongs the absorption of ethanol and ameliorates alcohol intoxication.
When water or ice is added to ouzo, which is clear in color, it turns milky white; this is because anethole, the essential oil of anise, is soluble in alcohol but not in water. Diluting the spirit causes it to separate creating an emulsion, whose fine droplets scatter the light. This process is called louching, and is also found while preparing absinthe.1
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